The only difference between this place and hell is gravity.
Some films are just too tough a watch to be described as ‘enjoyable’. Ill Manors is an unpleasant experience, which leaves you feeling exhausted and more than a little disturbed by the horrors which you’ve just seen unfold. It’s a like watching a dead carcass fester and rot, slowly degrading until it gets absorbed back into the earth; or watching a chicken get killed, plucked and gutted, ready for consumption. You know these things happen on a daily basis in the world we live in – but seeing them presented in all their dark and depraved ‘glory’ is something truly unsettling.
Ill Manors won’t make you turn vegetarian, but will make you want your children, your children’s children – and basically everybody’s children – to forevermore grow up in a solid, stable home, free of abuse of any form; loved and nurtured into adulthood.
Although the film follows one particular character a little bit more than the others, it is largely comprised of a series of interconnected tales which overlap and fuse together to give you a kind of portrait of urban council estate poverty, depression and depravity. We follow drug dealers, wannabe pimps, gangs, prostitutes, immigrant sex slaves, and fresh new kids who get pulled into this world of violence and both physical and psychological horror. Each tale leads on to the next one, tying in characters we’ve met before, and fleshing out the background into each and every one of them – not forgiving their abhorrent behaviour, but helping us better understand it.
The directorial debut from Plan B, aka Ben Drew – rapper and occasional actor (Adulthood, The Sweeney, Harry Brown) – is a shocking, brutal film; unflinchingly raw and surprisingly powerful, if you have the stomach for it. It is part of an ongoing project by Plan B to spark up debate following on from the London Riots and, more broadly, highlight what he feels is an unspoken class divide, which has council estate kids labelled as troubled youths and never given the opportunity to become anything else. Whilst clearly not trying to condone the actions of adolescent criminals, he is attempting to show both the turmoil and unrest in a part of society that is often all too easily dismissed.
Indeed he had started work on this project long before the 2011 Riots, back when he couldn’t get funding to turn a script he wrote when he was just 21 into a film. Taking the money that he did have, he chose instead to shoot a short film entitled Michelle (which works very effectively as a pilot for Ill Manors, both in content and style, actors and intentions). Michelle was almost like an extended music video in style – in the same way that many of Plan B’s music videos are like short films; even the lyrics of his songs tell us stories – lyrically ‘narrating’ the story using interspersed raps from Plan B himself, as he takes us through a day in the life of a crack-addict who is pimped out by a couple of drug dealers.
Less than four months after completing Michelle, Plan B finished the first draft to Ill Manors, but it took a further three years to go through development and to secure funding, eventually getting £100,000 budget from Film London – all that anyone would offer him because he was a debut director. In that time Plan B’s project evolved, taking in the aftermath of the London Riots, spawning a 2012 soundtrack album of the same name – Ill Manors – which, itself has been the source of four singles released over the course of the last 6 months, and receiving unforeseen interest from film studios across the West largely as a result of that album’s massive success. Yet, at the heart of it all is an absolute labour of love undertaken by a man with very personal childhood experiences that fuel his vision and drive him to convey his message about the disaffected youth of today.
For a low budget directorial debut, Ill Manors is a very impressive film indeed. It’s difficult to describe it using words like ‘good’ or ‘enjoyable’, because they just feel so inappropriate when discussing a film as difficult to watch as this. It’s such a dark and relentlessly depressing film that you actually start to pray for relief with these characters, no longer hoping for the best, purely expecting the worst and just hoping for a quick end to their sorry existences. One telling part where this is prevalent is towards the latter end involves a hapless, naive schoolgirl – you are actually relieved that she doesn’t live to see the addicted-to-crack-and-pimped-out as-an-underage-whore fate that she had to look forward to.
However, it’s clear that Plan B’s intentions were pure in his attempt to bring more awareness to the state of decline on the streets; the truth behind the council estate labelling and closed-minded assumptions which he feels propagate the situation. Openly criticising the use of the word ‘chav’ – which he feels is just as derogatory as a sex or race-related slur – he feels that there is a underacknowledged class war going on, which sees the middle-class publicly expressing their wanton hatred for largely white working-class individuals, using arguably the same kind of blanket prejudice that spawned race riots in the past. Perhaps, in a way, this is what he feels has contributed to the London riots of last year. Certainly it’s an interesting argument and, whilst he never even comes close to condoning the behaviour of these disaffected youths, he attempts to raise awareness as to how this ‘neo-snobbery’ may alienate the voiceless group they are largely aimed at.
Although the subject-matter is hard to swallow, it carries some important and worthy messages, and is certainly deserving of attention. It’s not the only thing striking about the production though, as Plan B not only delivers a shocking slice of real-life horror with his narrative, he also brings out a whole bevy of powerful performances from his largely inexperienced cast, and furthermore presents it all in a package which boasts some truly impressive directorial style.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film quite like this before. Sure, the overlapping, interconnecting story-structure – following half-a-dozen characters whose lives intersect – has been done numerous times before in everything from Crash to The Skin I Live In, along with numerous Robert Altman films. Even the slight non-linear jumping-back-and-forth idea is not uncommon. Super 8, hand-held, stop motion, time lapse (the cloud sequences are stunning), montages and camera-phone footage – we’ve seen films which incorporate many of these stylistic ingredients. The clever Scorsese tributes to the classics Mean Streets and, more obviously, Taxi Driver have also been done before – and even done before in films commenting on youth violence and city riots (La Haine). Yet how many movies have you come across which combine ALL of these elements with what can only be described as an urban musical soundtrack?!
Each of the main characters that we meet gets their own little rap song – set to a flashback montage, with Plan B narrating/singing their specific backstory. It’s unique. And, even if it takes a bit of getting used to, it is remarkably effective. The infrequent montages are powerful in and of themselves – the writer/director showcasing unremitting, unflinching instances of child abuse, violence, sexual degradation and so forth – but, coupled with the narrated stories provide through the accompanying songs, the effect is considerably enhanced. Indeed I suspect that the album would be a bleak listen even on its own, so the two mediums acting as one convey the message in an even more effective fashion.
Choosing a nearly completely unknown cast was also a wise decision on his part. Sure, there are a couple of recognisable faces, but the majority of the cast is fairly fresh to film. Riz Ahmed (Four Lions, Centurion) plays essentially the most prominent character in the narrative and puts in an excellent performance. Originally the role was played by Adam Deacon (Kidulthood) in the pilot, Michelle, but Ahmed is arguably even more refined, bringing us a well-developed, thoughtful portrayal: playing perhaps one of the few characters who is not beyond redemption. His drug dealer, Aaron, may be very rough around the edges, but, unlike some of the people he associates with, he can normally see the difference between right and wrong, even if he seldom chooses – and finds it difficult – to actually do anything about it.
Nathalie Press (who you might recognise from one or two small features, having worked with another Brit social commentator/director, Andrea Arnold, on both Red Road and the short film Wasp) plays an ‘imported’ sex slave, desperate to escape her situation now that she has a small baby to take care of. It’s one of the most harrowing of the storylines, particularly when her background is fleshed out and we get to see just what she’s been through to get this far.
The rest of the cast either comprise fresh talent who have never acted before or contributors who had worked with Plan B before, both on his music videos and on the original pilot, Michelle, reprising their equivalent roles here. In the latter respect we have Plan B’s childhood friend Ed Skrein playing Riz Ahmed’s drug dealing partner, also called Ed. Bristling with barely restrained power he manages to perfectly capture the flipside to Ahmed’s still-capable-of-being-redeemed Aaron, showing a man who has become so jaded and twisted that he no longer cares about things like right and wrong, it’s just all about survival. His story arc is very strong and powerfully resolved and it’s shocking to think that this guy hasn’t done any significant acting before.
Anouska Mond also reprises her role from the pilot, playing the same tortured titular anti-heroine from that film, Michelle, a crack-addicted girl who is pimped out by Ed (with Aaron unable to stop him and thus going along with it) because he believes she stole his mobile phone. It’s horrific to watch the sexual acts that she is forced to commit repeatedly – Plan B directing the scenes with a raw punch that will leave you feeling like you need a shower. Again, Mond displays a talent that makes you wonder why you’ve never seen her before on screen, perfectly crafting a realistic portrayal of this woman, where she came from, and the triggers that make her question her life.
Plan B’s godfather Keith Coggins plays the nasty Kirby, an outwardly affable career drug dealer who has simply no redeeming qualities about him. As happy to threaten a rival dealer on his patch with a gun in broad daylight as he is to entice teenager schoolgirls to taking drink and drugs, he’s one of the few main characters whose background is never completely fleshed out. We get to see some of his past, but nothing that could explain this behaviour, without a single glimmer of light in the darkness that envelopes this character.
Lee Allen gets one of the toughest characters to work with, playing Chris, the tough drug supplier whose background involves Kirby, a crack-addict mother and a neo-Nazi skinhead. Whilst his history is extremely well developed, he gets less to play with in the fore, thankfully communicating a great deal through his stoic tough-guy demeanour, assured attitude and long-lost humanity. Whilst you see what made him this way, and understand the reasons behind his actions, watching him stride through this movie like a British Terminator is at times terrifying.
A number of complete newcomers joined the project as a result of Plan B visiting the Rokeby School in the East End of London. He had five parts to fill, and felt that there was no way that he could expect a 14-year-old actor to ‘act’ like somebody who came from this kind of background, and that it was better to actually get the real deal to play the roles. Perhaps the standout amidst these is Ryan De La Cruz, playing the young Jake, who we get to see shockingly evolve from schoolboy to gang member in just a matter of days. It feels so easy, and so wrong – this kid can just slip into an inescapable pit of violence and crime just by getting in with the wrong crowd.
I feel I should also mention seeing similar new talent from unknown teenager Eloise Smyth, who is surely a face to watch, set to star in two further films off the back of her involvement her. At just 17 she brings strength and presence to her role and offers up a nice counterpoint to both her more naive, and also her more violent, teen girl counterparts in the movie.
Filming not far from the Olympic Village, in the area near where Plan B himself grew up, this is a personal project in every respect, afforded a topical streak not least by the Olympics but also by last year’s riots. Asked to be a guest speaker at a TED conference, Plan B would further highlight some of his views on adolescent (mis)behaviour and pointedly quote: “If you ask how we became a society where young people think it’s ok to rob and loot, I respond how did we get to a society that cares more about shops and businesses than the lives of young people?” Perhaps this is at the heart of his project, and, although he never holds back in depicting the utter depravity and wanton acts of violence that emanate from the streets, he also tries to show fleeting glimpse of hope in amidst the horror. Sometimes this comes in the form of optimism on the part of certain characters, but sometimes even this optimism is further dashed by painful twists of events. The morality ebbs throughout each character arc – the repercussions of every single decision resonating across the piece – and, although it’s almost entirely bleak, the operative word is almost.
The end result is a striking, powerful movie which may be hard to swallow – which may be even harder to consider revisiting – but which is a most impressive effort for any director, let alone a British rapper making his directorial debut for little over £100,000. Certainly I would recommend a rental. It’s two hours of your life which you risk ending up wanting back, but only because of the dark and stark truth that is on offer here – truth which itself is unquestionably worthy of your time. Recommended.
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