Of his directorial debut Ill Manors, rapper and wannabe auteur Ben Drew aka Plan B said he was making a “British Godfather”. Well, despite an evident interest in interweaving narratives, Drew’s picture bears little relation to Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece. Sweeping epic this most certainly isn’t.
What it is though is a bleak and defiantly grim expose of life on the streets of Forest Gate, seemingly an urban battleground populated by gangs, drug dealers, hookers and even requisite Russian pimps. If it sounds eerily familiar to Noel Clarke’s Kidulthood/Adulthood double-header, the latter of which Drew appeared in, then that’s because it is. Drew might attempt to bring his own flourishes to the party, but he has neither the eye nor the narrative finesse that Clarke possesses and as a result Ill Manors comes off feeling like a relatively poor imitation.
From the off, Drew seems to be trying too hard. Suffused with every visual gimmick one might imagine, he introduces the gritty reality of life on the streets of East London accompanied by his trademark lyrical commentary of the unfolding story. It’s a clever device which very quickly becomes tired, as explanations of multiple characters back stories are delivered at breakneck speed and in staccato fashion.
There’s Chris (Lee Allen), a local drug runner, shown the ropes by the wizened Kirby (Keith Coggins), but who now runs the show. Then there’s the frantic Ed (Ed Skrein) who loses his phone and will go to any lengths, read nonchalantly pimping out local trick turner Michelle (Anouska Mond) to every takeaway in town, to recoup his loss. Marcel (Nick Sagar) sports the spurned big man on campus cap, grooming the naïve Jake (a promising Ryan De LaCruz) to do his dirty work, and then tying these disparate narrative strands together and acting as the film’s moral compass is Aaron (the ever excellent Riz Ahmed).
Drew’s screenplay is improvisational in feel and at times is fairly wry, (a throwaway line about Nourishment is sure to raise a giggle), but less successful is his attempt to draw these characters and the narrative together, which for the first act at least feels like a series of extended montages rather than a cohesive story. However, the stories of our young protagonists do eventually meld, primarily through happenstance and convenience more than anything else, the narrative neatly flitting back and forth to fill in the gaps, as death, deception and revenge play out in a spiral of action and consequence.
It all makes for fairly conventional and trivial fare, which is no bad thing, but where Drew falls down is by trying to squeeze too much into one film. As the Chris, Kirby, Marcel and Jake affair reaches a natural and fitting conclusion, Drew deems it necessary to add another superfluous narrative thread into the mix with the introduction of Katya (Natalie Press) a young mother in thrall to a vicious pimp. It feels clunky and latched on and only serves to tie up Aaron and Ed’s involvement and to add a cringe inducing and literal element of hope to proceedings.
Glimmer of hope aside, what is achingly clear is that Drew is a firm believer in the notion that we are products of our environment, with nurture playing a more fundamental role in our fates than nature. The estate and the streets act as a vicious circle of a dead-end existence, with escape a distant unreality. All said, it’s a fairly damning indictment of life on the poverty ridden streets, but Drew’s refusal to shy away from some stark realities of 21st Century Britain should perhaps be applauded.
Drew certainly has plenty to say and certain players do say it well, Ahmed in particular, but he needs to rein in his fierce ambition and simplify his direction if he’s to avoid being dismissed as a derivative and less appealing Plan B to Noel Clarke’s soaring and infinitely more alluring Plan A.