You Have to See… is a weekly feature here at 4:3, where one staff writer picks a film they love and makes a group of other writers watch it for the first time. Once this group has seen the film, the suggestor writes a piece advocating the film and the others respond below. Whilst not explicitly spoiling the film, the article is detailed. We would recommend seeking out and watching the film each week, then joining in the debate in the comments section.
This week Jake Moody looks at musician-filmmaker Plan B’s debut film/album tie-in, Ill Manors (2012).
Ill Manors was not conceived, by any stretch of the imagination, out of a sure-fire recipe for critical success. Its background reads like a checklist for forgettability: created as the filmic half of British rapper Plan B’s dual-format third album, it was written and directed by the first-time feature filmmaker, a.k.a. Ben Drew, himself; its main subjects, small-time gang members and wayward youths in the East End of London, have been scrutinised to death in mainstream media and in the recent resurgence of grimy council-estate kitchen sink films; and the film itself is written and photographed with explicit debts to early-2000s ensemble crime films which should rightfully come off as immature. Despite all of this, Ill Manors is an unexpectedly literate, politically relevant and unique work. By scratching away at the drug-addled beating heart of so-called ‘broken Britain’, Drew moves past the pitfalls of making an album tie-in, a hand-wringing class-injustice subgenre film, or a wannabe GoodFellas knockoff. Instead, he inventively mines underappreciated traditions of British urban music and film culture, from spoken word pub poetry, through the apoplectic social rage of the last millennium’s Loaches, Leighs and Nil by Mouths, to eventually create an anguished statement on social democracy, the plight of England’s nobodies, and his own status as a chronicler of the demise of his environment. Ill Manors is honest, bold, and eventually cathartic. Imagine if Billy Bragg had directed City of God, someone posted shit through Boris Johnson’s letterbox, and the 2011 London riots had resulted in full-scale war. Drew manages to accumulate disparate acts of commentary on the world he depicts – flippant, politicised, furious – into an improbable and affecting success.
Probably the most immediate indicator of the film’s idiosyncrasy is its contestable status in relation to the Ill Manors album, which gives rise to all kinds of questions about its status as a work ‘authored’ by Plan B (or by Ben Drew?), and its commercial versus artistic position. Officially, Ill Manors (album) is the accompanying soundtrack to the standalone Ill Manors (film) – the record was released a month after the film’s UK premiere in 2012. However, the ways in which Ben Drew incorporates his individual tracks into the fabric of the screen narrative seems to suggest a film designed around the album, rather than other way round. If the film is the central project here, why are the lyrics and individual track themes mapped so neatly onto the sequence of scenes constituting the film story? The half-dozen or so pivotal characters are headed by Aaron and Ed (Riz Ahmed, a friend of Drew’s, and Ed Skrein, now better-known for a supporting Game of Thrones role), small-time drug dealers; complemented by recently-paroled career criminal Kirby (played by Drew’s godfather Keith Coggins), Kirby’s protégé Chris (Lee Allen), Marcel (Nick Sagar), the leader of a gang of petty thugs, and Jake (Ryan de la Cruz), a schoolboy drawn semi-willingly into Marcel’s tutelage, the central male characters represent a broad-brush microcosm of the East End underworld. Appearing to span backgrounds from outright abusive to relatively stable working class, and encapsulating the white, Caribbean, and South Asian demographics of the Forest Gate area, as well as suggesting an aggressive, dominating masculine hierarchy, the film’s characterisation of its leads is a clear effort to achieve some documentarian credit.
On the other hand, Drew’s personal relationships with much of the cast are a telling sign of the identity blurring inherent in a cross-platform release like this, a sense which is compounded by his own intrusion into the narrative. The second of the album’s eleven tracks appears correspondingly early in the film, and is titled “I Am The Narrator”. It’s worth quoting a chunk of the lyrics:
“Are you sittin’ comfortably?
Well put your seat belts on, ‘Cause you’re in for a harrowing ride.
‘Cause this is Ill Manors, where dark shit goes on at night.
I am the narrator.
The voice that guides the blind, following not with your ears but your mind.
An’ allow me to take you back an’ forth through time.
To explain the significance of things you may think are insignificant now.
But won’t… farther down the line!”
While the implication that Plan B is explaining to the film audience how a non-linear plot works here is one of the more galling moments in the film – other elements of the story are telegraphed way ahead of time, too – some adherence to crowd-pleasing genre attributes is forgivable in a project which likely would have torpedoed Drew’s filmmaking aspirations if it had failed to perform well at the box office. What’s more interesting is the open admission: “I am the narrator…following not with your ears but your mind.” Viewers are expected to be aware of Ill Manors as an aural experience, and of Plan B the recording artist, while digesting Ill Manors, the hard-hitting crime drama. Juxtaposing cross-media self-reference against a hard-earned veracity – Drew grew up on the estates he depicts, and the film is shot explicitly to evoke the dark, threatening photos of civil disorder taken in the area – gives both a more incisive edge. The film’s final shot, a half-second cutaway revealing Drew as the driver of the taxi taking a reformed Aaron away from the “Ill Manors” tenements, should be gimmicky as all hell, but instead is an electrifying final word on authorship. Ill Manors the film isn’t an adaptation of the album, nor vice versa, but each is an adaptation of the ideas within the other – this is why it works. As a concept album feature, it’s not The Wall but it’s not Tommy either.
Ill Manors’ style affects the same performance – moments of physicality, violence and excess are composed against a background of more restrained pacing and editing, itself confronting in the casualness with which it depicts acts of brutality. Several scenes stand out, for example a flashback sequence providing an origin story of sorts for Chris and Kirby’s rivalry. Shot mainly from one perspective in a grimy smackhead bedsit, with narration provided solely by the album track “Drug Dealer” (“15 years away from now/the youth will grow big and strong/and take control of it all/that’s the way it goes Mr. Drug Dealer”), the scene animates Plan B through his lyrics in the image of a compere, a malevolent narrator, such that the doomed, hopeless nature of young Chris’ upbringing takes on a stage-like atmosphere. The square, deliberate framing makes more sense from this perspective: in truth certainly a reference to a similar sequence in City of God, the cliché of a gangster’s backstory is rendered more visceral, and acts as a broader, candid view into the conditions which breed violence, by this distanced style – which isn’t used in the film again. Another scene where Drew plays off genre expectations against a more multivalent style is the early scene where Jake nervously approaches Marcel with a (white) friend in tow, looking to exchange £20 for a joint or two. The unnamed friend’s awkward nature and admittance that he nicked the money from his mum, unerringly drab British schoolyard setting, and Jake’s poorly feigned confidence set up a blackly comic mood; we expect that somebody’s going to get dacked, or the boys are going to end up being sold oregano instead of cannabis. Instead, Marcel steals the cash, and refuses to return it or come up with the drugs unless Jake attacks his friend for the dealers’ amusement – they film the assault on camera phones.
Ill Manors’ schizophrenic movements from heavily stylised to totally naturalistic enhance the power of both strains of its mise-en-scène. Compared with, say, the ceaseless misery to no avail depicted in films like Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, 1 Drew’s film thereby takes on a redemptive rather than only diagnostic tone. “Look at all the awful things that happen in the inner cities” is not a lesson that’s being delivered here, especially when Ill Manors’ connections to musical expression and the cocky, eclectic visual elements of millennial crime films which it deploys – the aforementioned City of God, Guy Ritchie’s by turns brilliant and stultifying works and so on – are allowed to play a meaningful role in disturbing straightforward generic constructs.
On the other hand, Drew manages to steer Ill Manors away from chirpy Cockney crim cash-in status with the parts of it which are genuinely grim; all of which maintain Plan B’s mercurial omnipresent rap narration. Aaron and Ed, in an effort to unearth or at least replace Ed’s stolen phone, drag a stricken prostitute around various gross all-night takeaway joints, selling her for a tenner a pop to the employees. It’s photographed in shaky long-shot, as though the camera were a half-drunk fellow chicken shop punter, with Ahmed and Skrein displaying the stony-faced wannabe toughness of basically good men doing something atrocious. Plan B’s narration continues: “But there’s a millions other girls just like Michelle/Out in the streets with nothing else to sell/To these desperate males other than themselves”. Sure enough, other supporting characters, particularly Katya (Natalie Press), add to the misery heaped upon women by the feckless chavs and lowlifes populating Drew’s Forest Gate – the unadorned, flowless lyrics Plan B dedicates to them, though, suggest a desire to be observational rather than to make false overtures about the necessity of abuse.
Ill Manors’ multitudinous other plot points and twists tend to function in this vein: a kind of curiosity or playful voyeurism punctured by sequences of undeniable starkness. The film’s climax, where one of Ed and Aaron’s hopeless schemes culminates in a violent confrontation in a pub which ends up in flames, epitomises Drew’s determined seriousness as well as his occasionally blinding lack of ability to rein himself in. The fire, Ed’s barely believable but still emotive death, the shots of onlookers silhouetted against the flames, the images of London’s vast, bloated Olympic Park that follow. Suddenly, Ill Manors isn’t about gangsters any more. It’s about the failing hopes of millions, and the power of basic humanity to sustain them in the face of turbulent times. It’s a statement which is made, at times, as heavy-handedly as one would expect from a late-twenties Londoner with a record deal and a ciggie in his mouth, but one which resonates far more effectively than the film itself even seems to know. Ill Manors has enough verbosity to sustain it, and Ben Drew/Plan B has enough tenacity to elevate it to a film which outgrows its genre to become a major document of a nation in distress.
Dom Barlow: You couldn’t accuse Ill Manors of being boring. First stabs at film often have the same lethargic traits – ordinary framing, awkward line readings, etc. – so it’s nice that Drew finds an energy in his home turf that avoids and sometimes plays off those traps. Actors bounce off each other with improv-heavy line readings, the washed-out digital look works in favour of the bleak urban setting and the revolving-door plotlines and characters do the same by reflecting how quickly people in this warzone get trod underfoot. Jake is right to commend the allegorical power of these techniques, and I would also make mention of the Super-8 childhood flashbacks he uses to underscore a character’s death, which is a welcome moment of Davies-like poignance amid such a brutal narrative. These tactics would be frustrating if not used well, but Drew finds a tactility that makes for a compelling mix.
Unfortunately, it’s those same pleasant surprises that make its key shortcomings sting. Claims that the female characters are victims of the Madonna/Whore complex are pre-emptively defended as being true to Drew’s experience, as he tells us himself in the rap-narration quoted by Jake. Yet, for Drew to suspend logic for drama so often (particularly in the last half-hour) and then find a fate for them no better than being under dependent care feels non-committal, in that he cleaves to realism only when it suits him. This is worsened when you see him in that final shot in the cab, driving his male protagonist (already a dull Mary Sue) away to a better life. He is playing God with this scenario anyway, both in and with the text, and even making this kind of progressive action already through the racial diversity that Jake lauds. To whiff on this aspect is to lessen the compassion of the project and fall well short of his own goals.
Catherine Knight: Ill Manors manages to walk a very thin line; delving into the socio-economic conditions that breed crime without making a paternalistic apology for abuse. Not one of the best films I’ve seen but certainly one of the most unusual. Drew’s great success as a filmmaker is in his employment of a dynamic hybrid form, shifting unapologetically between polished traditionally set up scenes, mobile phone footage, saturated home video tapes, multi-channel sequences and rapping – which feels more akin to theatrical Shakespearean narration than to contemporary rock operas. This lack of a sustained aesthetic resists the moody romanticisation of the Trainspotting genre. Nothing about this film could really be labelled ‘badass’.
The black comedy element that Jake mentions is particularly unsettling when offset by the horrendous vignettes of violence. This tonal whiplash out of the lighter cockney crime genre into relentlessly tense realism creates a particularly macabre portrait of teenage mischief descending into disturbing cruelty. Kirby’s character, cheeky, endearing and never seen performing shocking acts of violence, is the most enjoyable to watch. This is emblematic of the comfort in the stylised and humorous gangster films that Drew is pushing back against. This subversive blending of tones is to best effect in the sequence in which Aaron and Ed squabble over a baby they have found themselves stuck with. The banter here is absurdly funny while connecting to the film’s wider political message about the foster system and an generation of orphans.
The real let-down for me with Ill Manors was Aaron’s characterisation. As the film progresses he emerges as the protagonist, fulfilling the role of the ‘sympathetic gangster’. This falls flat having been prematurely established in the opening sequence, where we see him forlornly watching a report on children’s homes. By sentimentalising his character from the beginning his redemptive move out of crime is far less resonant, with the closing metaphor-laden cab ride out of the city rendered unsatisfying.
Would I watch Ill Manors again? Probably not. Seeing a prostitute pimped out for ten dollars and a kebab was something I only needed to sit through once. To call the film confronting would of course be redundant, and however uncomfortable none of the violence is gratuitous or irrelevant to the plot. This first feature, while not a joy to watch, is incredibly interesting. Ill Manors uses an experimental storytelling approach unique to Plan B/Drew that you just wouldn’t see from a director with a pure film-industry background.