iLL Manors (UK 2012)

Kirby,  just out of prison, discovers that Marcel has attempted to take over his drugs territory and he humiliates the younger man.

iLL Manors is a film that has received a great deal of attention. I’m not sure this has been totally a good thing as the film has been both over-praised and unfairly dismissed, possibly as a result of the hype. Where audiences have been allowed to ‘find’ the film by themselves many seemed to have been impressed. I’m not sure what I think about the film, but I wish I hadn’t listened to various broadcast reviews which I’ve been unable to get out of my head. I was certainly engaged over the long running time (121 mins for a first-time, low-budget production) by aspects of the cinematography/post-production: the performances of a large cast of both professionals and non-actors impressed me as well.

The hype is because this is the first feature by the ‘platinum-selling’ London rapper Plan B (under his given name, Ben Drew). He has been quoted as saying that he was inspired by Tarantino (Pulp Fiction) and Nicholas Refn and possibly by Mathieu Kassovitz’s La haine. iLL Manors has something of the structure of Pulp Fiction and both the structure and aspects of the milieu of La haine (as well as the familiar Taxi Driver mirror scene – “You talking to me?”). However, it is in some ways a grittier and more shocking representation of East London with a collection of sadder and more desperate characters than its inspirations. The ‘realism’ of the film is partly attributable to Drew’s admiration of the work of Shane Meadows and particularly This Is England. (Jo Hartley, young Shaun’s mum in This Is England, has a small role in iLL Manors.)

The story is set in East London around Forest Gate and Manor Park and involves a group of characters whose separate narratives interlock to produce an ‘ensemble drama’ that eventually becomes a crime melodrama. Aaron (Riz Ahmed) and Ed (Ed Skrein) are small-time drug dealers who find themselves embroiled with both Kirby (local big time dealer recently out of prison) and Kirby’s erstwhile protegé Chris. Trying to move in on the same drugs trade are Marcel and a young teen, Jake. Mobile phones with their replaceable SIMs and their databases of contacts are valuable and when one goes missing it drags ‘crack whore’ Michelle and eventually the East European Katya, victim of trafficking, into the web of relationships. This bald outline suggests a familiar drugs-focused crime film and, combined with the relatively young characters and the setting, that recent British film genre, the ‘urban film’. However, in both formal and ideological terms, the film promises more.

Ben Drew first released a single of his rap ‘iLL Manors’ in April and it attracted attention because it seemed to be that relatively rare phenomenon in contemporary popular music – a ‘political’ commentary on young people’s lives making explicit references to ‘rich boys’ (like Cameron and Osborne) and the ‘real’ reasons for the outbreak of riots last summer in the UK. The video for this single includes several characters who appear in the film and presumably some footage that was shot for the film. Here’s the music video:

This is an ambitious film which is why it is surprising to find that it’s part of the Microwave scheme organised by Film London to help first-time young filmmakers who have demonstrated their talent and potential. The scheme was originally set up to produce films with a budget of under £100,000 to be shot in 18 days. The unique aspect of the scheme was the mentoring of directors and producers by more experienced UK filmmakers. Arguably the most successful of the early films produced under the scheme was Shifty (2008). In many ways, Shifty is the best comparison film for iLL Manors. The same actor, Riz Ahmed (himself also a rapper) appears in both films in a similar role. However, in Shifty, the writer-director Eran Creevy had the support of several more well-known actors, a tight script and a single location with relatively few complex scenes. iLL Manors has a cast with more non-professionals, a much longer script (50% more), many more scenes/set-ups and significantly more post-production work. My first reaction was to query how much more Ben Drew spent on the film and how Microwave now works. The current scheme seems to have upped the budget limit marginally to £120,000 but I’m sure I’ve also read that Drew had to find extra funding for post-production. Even so, the completed film is an impressive achievement and Drew is clearly a talented director of actors as well as a creative writer. Credit for the fresh look of the film also goes to cinematographer Gary Shaw, something of a veteran of London ‘effects’ shooting who lensed Moon for Duncan Jones. There is a useful press pack on the film available here and lots of promotional material on YouTube and other sites.

Critical commentary

iLL Manors got a relatively wide release from the independent distributor Revolver (which had its first big success with Kidulthood – the film which helped to begin the current ‘urban film’ cycle). The initial release was successful with over £250,000 taken during the first weekend from 191 cinemas, but in Week 2 the number of cinemas fell to 83 and the screen average fell by 65% for an overall fall of 85%. This could be read in several ways. Revolver may have concluded that an initial release to capitalise on the strong profile of Plan B would need to go wide first but that most of the audience would get to see it via DVD and online later. But it also looks like word of mouth was not strong.

Some of the more critical reviews charge the film with collapsing into what is referred to as soap opera or melodrama, specifically an ‘EastEnders Christmas special storyline’. This is a reference to a pub fire that brings several narrative strands to a climax. I don’t watch TV soaps any more, but I understand the charge. I felt at this point in the narrative that moving into melodrama mode was not a bad idea and I think the charge is more a problem of lazy critics. Ben Drew should be applauded on several levels. His music, with mini-biographical songs about some of the characters accompanying a montage of their histories is well-handled. There is a strong sense of authenticity about the locations and the casting and we do get a sense of what it must be like to grow up without much hope in a place like this – since this is precisely the area close to the Olympics site which is supposed to be ‘regenerating’ East London the film also carries a political charge. This is Drew’s own neighbourhood and he represents it with vigour. The problems in the film are mainly concerned with over-ambition. With this many characters, each of which with their own story as well as their contribution to the overall narrative running over 2 hours, it’s easy to lose track of who is doing what to whom. I’d like to see a tighter edit with perhaps one or two of the stories slimmed down or disappearing altogether and perhaps a little more concentration on presenting the action for audiences like me who are less familiar with the lifestyles. Having said that, I’m not the target audience. Drew has said that his focus was the 15-25 age group. In that sense he has done the film no favours by presenting a title which the BBFC deemed worthy of an ’18’ certificate – certainly for the ‘bad language’ as well as the drug scenes and extreme violence. I did feel that the violence towards women was excessive – but perhaps it is acceptable in terms of the narrative. Certainly this isn’t an easy watch – but it is worth spending two hours with.


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