I’ve thought long and hard about iLL Manors, rapper/producer Ben ‘Plan B’ Drew’s debut film – it’s an interesting and, in some ways, unexpected picture. When I saw the film’s initial trailer, I was a bit underwhelmed. It seemed to have little to distinguish it from the recent pack of enjoyable but disposable grimesploitation flicks. But when the title track dropped, my interest piqued. Not for any revolutionary sonic qualities (UK grime has plenty of fiery, angrier precedents for Drew’s track) but because it hinted at something uncomfortable, unpalatable and raw – a film with fire in its belly, timed perfectly to land right in the middle of a summer of ‘patriotic’ celebration and deepening austerity.
Anyone expecting a full blooded assault on England’s establishment may be surprised. I was bracing myself for a spitting, angry polemic. On one hand, iLL Manors is actually a deeply conservative (small c) movie, and the explicit connection Drew makes between ‘the plight of young fellows’ and their lack of guidance and parental direction means the film could fit comfortably within the Cameron/Gove ideology of family values addressing all social ills. But implicitly, and through its very existence, the film points up wider issues – namely that a civilised society (and indeed government, whatever their hue) cannot ignore the violence on its doorstep or the causes.
Drew employs an interlinked vignette structure, set around a depressed and drug-infested east London estate, to explore the interplay between government, society, responsibility and family and how these contribute to a seemingly unbreakable cycle of violence.
It’s a typical first time directors film in a lot of ways – there are flourishes and homages to the usual sources. If anything, the film is a victim of its own ambition and the sprawling nature of having so many stories sometimes works against it in terms of emotional impact. And while Drew’s own soundtrack may work well as a standalone piece, for my taste it is way too literal – blunting rather than elevating the visuals. Walking an uneasy line between social realism and exploitation, the film reminded me of both Nil By Mouth and EastEnders. As you would expect from a guy who has lived the life, the characters here feel mostly real and are played by a charismatic and largely nonprofessional cast (although better-known fine actors like Riz Ahmed and Jo Hartley do excellent work too).
The film’s visual style belies its low-budget origins. Director of photography Gary Shaw (who also shot Duncan Jones film Moon) ensures it looks good, even when things get very bad. Sometimes, in his desire to provide a blistering state-of-the-nation address, Drew overcooks his most powerful moments. But there are some chilling sequences and you don’t doubt the sincerity. One scene, involving the indoctrination of a young boy into a life of crime and murder, visually realises the trajectory from victim child to problem adult in horribly vivid fashion and brought to mind Hector Babenco’s blistering Pixote (1981). If you don’t know that film, you should. If you do, you’ll realise that is high praise indeed.
iLL Manors is part of what has become a very swiftly produced and self-sustaining genre. In a lot of ways these are actually far more honest about British life than a lot of mainstream films and they appeal to a wide demographic that doesn’t go to the cinema that much if at all. But it’s a hard genre to transcend (Eran Creevy’s Shifty and TVs Top Boy aside), prone to triteness, cliché and self-mythologizing. iLL Manors is not immune to this. There’s at least one story too many here, the ending is a bit of a mess and the women are mostly victims or victimized and barely get a look-in. I also wish he’d managed to somehow mine some humour (no matter how jet-black) from the situations, though I understand why he didn’t.
It seems to me that Drew’s intention was not to craft a perfect film but to create a mood piece, a film that is as much about environment as it is character and, on that scale, iLL Manors is at least partly successful. It’s no narcissistic vanity project, but a personal work that is earnest and often messy. It certainly isn’t an easy or especially enjoyable watch. The brutality and inhumanity is unceasing and relentless, even though I largely suspect that, for whatever reasons, Drew has softened the content for a wider audience.
Plenty of people won’t like or respond to iLL Manors. They may feel it’s a film about people too far gone, too far removed from their own lives, too threatening to think about. But an underclass can only be ignored or demonised for so long. Drew knows this and while he’s escaped , there are plenty who haven’t and probably never will. There is nothing ‘new’ in iLL Manors and Drew doesn’t have the answers but at least he’s asking some of the right questions. Whether they will be heard, and how they will be interpreted, is another story – bigger than this film or its director can contain.