"I wouldn't show this to anyone planning on visiting London for the Olympic Games..."
With the 2012 Olympic Games pending, all eyes are on London at present, and British film makers are evidently playing up to the prestigious event, as productions based around the Games and city - such as both Personal Best and Fast Girls and the re-release of Chariots of Fire - are filled with the hope and passion that epitomises the sentiment of the expectant nation. However the same can't be said for Ben Drew's (AKA Plan B) directorial début Ill Manors, an overly bleak depiction of London life.
Presented as a hip-hop musical with Drew narrating by way of lyrical verse, Ill Manors is set on the streets of present day London, where a series of interlinking tales connect through desolation and tragedy. The lives of characters such as Aaron (Riz Ahmed) and Ed (Ed Skrein) are delved into, as the former is desperate for a route out of his troubled and dangerous lifestyle, whilst the latter persists in thriving within it.
Joining Aaron and Ed's almost Shakespearian set of tragic events is notorious drug dealer Kirby (Keef Coggins), who is part of a food-chain of bullying and dealing alongside the likes of the volatile and feared Chris (Lee Allen) who picks on Marcel (Nick Sagar) who inadvertently takes his distress out on the young, impressionable Jake (Ryan De La Cruz). We also follow the turbulent lives of prostitutes Katya (Natalie Press) and Michelle (Anouska Mond) as well as a pub landlord and his wife Carol (Jo Hartley) who are hoping for a child. The characters are all linked together, yet one wrong move for any of them and the repercussions could affect the entire collective...
Despite any initial apprehensions towards Drew's feature, there is absolutely no denying the man's creativity and uniqueness, and you have to admire him for that. Evident now in film and in music, the 28-year-old has an incredibly proactive and ambitious mind, and as director and writer, he has enhanced his reputation as a storyteller, as this film almost feels like a collaboration of his two studio albums. Ill Manors picks up the dark, melancholy of his first record Who Needs Actions When You Got Words, and the exquisite narrative of his follow-up concept album The Defamation of Strickland Bricks.
However despite a quite honest and accurate portrayal of the darker side to London's streets, the picture does feel somewhat far-fetched and as a result overly bleak. Ill Manors is incredibly intense and every single character has a bad streak to them, which makes for very uncomfortable viewing at times, relentless devastation. As a result you struggle to fully relate to any of the characters, or even like them at all for that matter. Aaron is the character you are supposed to feel empathy towards, but even he is prone to being a thug and seeing out quite unethical acts. There is one character - a young, innocent kid who gets beaten up early on for no reason whatsoever that we feel sorry for. Yet Drew delightfully depicts him mugging someone right at the end. Cheers Ben!
Consequently there is an evident lack of hope emanating from this feature - which is certainly imperative in such a production. The audience need a character to cling on to, just the slightest degree of hope that we can hold out for. It's somewhat surprising that there is a lack of promise in that regard, as Drew himself broke out of such a lifestyle and one would have expected him to implement a similar sentiment that matches that of his own life.
Yet the bleakness aside, Drew must be commended on his portrayal of the streets as he depicts it with devastating realism, in situations that are often so easy to get wrong. The impressive acting performances play a big part in such success, as does the fact the whole film has been spawned from the mind of someone who has been there and done it himself. The narratives are also linked together well, without feeling contrived or manufactured.
The music is also brilliantly implemented, as Drew is cleverly playing to his strengths, narrating the film with an original score which helps to tell the tale of the characters lives - as he explains through rap the backgrounds to each of his characters. The songs are intelligent and have a good flow and manage to tell the stories without seeming like they are simply rhyming for the sake it. Such a style of music seems reminiscent of the brilliant spoken word musician John Cooper Clarke - who also has a cameo within the film as Drew is clearly nodding his head to his influencers.
Ill Manors has its faults don't get me wrong. It is over-the-top and exaggerated in parts, falling into the Kidulthood trap at times where it depicts London as a much more dangerous place than it actually is, making out that every corner you turn violence and anguish awaits you. Yet it is just a film after all and one must accept that exaggeration is inevitable, and when depicting the darker side to the streets it is done well with a harsh conviction. However I wouldn't show this to anyone planning on visiting London for the Olympic Games, otherwise there could be a fair amount of seats without bums on them.