With acting credits to his name including Adulthood (2008), Harry Brown (2009) and The Sweeney (2012), as well as a clutch of music awards adorning his mantle, rapper and singer-songwriter Ben Drew (aka Plan B) has now turned his hand to film direction. Blending grim social drama with his own hip-hop musings, Ill Manors (2012) is Drew’s first time behind the camera of a feature having directed a short and a music video in 2008. Whilst not perfect, the film showcases Drew’s clear ability both stylistically and in handling a complex narrative.
Following the events in Drew’s own Forest Gate over the course of a few days, Ill Manors doesn’t have a central protagonist as such, though Aaron (Riz Ahmed) comes close, but flits from one lowlife to another to introduce us to a whole cast of locals. Almost everyone is either dealing drugs or taking them; from local kingpin, Chris (Lee Allen), to crack-whore Michelle (Anouska Mond), from the fresh out of jail Kirby (Keith Coggins), to illegal immigrant Katya (Nathalie Press).
Uncompromising and brutal are two words which could easily be used to describe the grim and largely disparate strands that make up Ill Manors’ narrative, but which Drew manages to nicely interweave in such a way that things rarely feel contrived. Probably the most difficult of these strands to stomach is that of Michelle who, having been accused of stealing a mobile phone belonging to dealer-come-hard-case, Ed (Ed Skrein), is marched around the fast food restaurants of Forest Gate and pimped out to the staff for £20 a time in order to pay for a replacement.
Ahmed does a good job of keeping Aaron likeable by showing his clear discomfort at the world in which he lives but even he allows awful things to happen without too much protest. It is fair to say that for the majority of the running time, Ill Manors doesn’t let up on it’s characters with only the final third offering a ray of hope and giving some of those involved (including Aaron) a moral compass. With such an array of players, time for exposition is tight and so Drew employs his musical talents to fill out the characters’ back-stories and in doing so creates interludes which play like themed music videos with his hip-hop insights laid over the top. It also in these moments that employs he most overt stylistic flourishes including footage from mobile phones and CCTV.
Things don’t work on every occasion and some of the characters of Ill Manors feel largely superfluous whilst there is the odd rap-montage-back-story episode that is less engaging than the others. The plot works nicely on the whole though, even when things escalate to vaguely ridiculous levels towards the climax and Drew clearly has some talent and things to say.
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