After two years of sitting in storage while its director completed his Defamation of Strickland Banks world tour, Ill Manors (or ill MANORS, if you prefer) is finally in cinemas. I hadn’t read the Daily Mail’s coverage of Ill Manors, but I was completely confident before Googling that Ben Drew’s debut feature wouldn’t have made him many friends with Britain’s favourite racist pseudo-tabloid. Sure enough, Chris Tookey (Mary Whitehouse without the wig) dismissed it as being “so awful [Drew] should now contemplate Plan C” and the “[w]orst-ever British gangster film”. Do you even need another reason to watch this film? If you do, here’s one: it’s fucking brilliant. (Sorry for swearing, Chris.)
Welcome to Forest Gate, East London. Not too bad a place to be if you’re an enterprising young man like Ed (Skrein), who earns his crust by flogging coke to sad, fat middle-aged men. The police pick him up once in a while, obviously, but so long as he can get his stash and his mobile to his sidekick Aaron (Ahmed) before he’s cuffed then he knows he’ll be out in no time. Unfortunately, this time round things don’t quite go to plan – Aaron accidentally leaves Ed’s phone at the house of dealer (and prodigious crackhead) Kirby (Keith Coggins), recently released after fifteen years inside. Kirby insists that the phone was pinched by Michelle (Mond), a crackhead he’d been in bed with when Aaron popped round; Ed is determined to track her down and get what he’s owed – at £10 a shag.
Meanwhile, teenage wannabe gangster Jake (Ryan de la Cruz) is trying to score some weed from local tough Marcel (Nick Sagar), who sees his potential and quickly incorporates the nervy youth into his gang. And Katya (Natalie Press), an Eastern European woman trafficked into sex slavery, is agonising about what to do about the child she couldn’t avoid having. Kirby’s having some trouble with Chris (Lee Allen), his former protégé and now undisputed kingpin of Kirby’s old patch – but it’s fine, he’s found some teenage girls to entice back to his flat with promises of a modelling contract. Ed’s phone still hasn’t turned up, by the way, but a couple of other interesting things have – Aaron’s found someone’s pistol in a pub toilet. That’s probably fine, isn’t it? The sort of person to stash a gun in a pub in Forest Gate almost certainly won’t come after whoever took it…
Are you confused? Good. Ill Manors makes no allowances for the fact that most of the people watching it will be profoundly out of their depth, and a combination of breakneck plotting, shocking characters and brutal, ugly slang conspire to keep the audience on the back foot. Drew’s sole concession is the inclusion of an unseen narrator (Drew himself), whose darkly lyrical raps weave in and out of the scenes at vital moments. And there are so, so many vital (adj.: ‘of, relating to, or characteristic of life; necessary to continued existence‘) moments – life is cheap, and you’d do well not to get too attached to any one character. Surprisingly, that’s quite a challenge. Drew’s last film role was as Michael Caine’s remorseless, hoodied nemesis in Harry Brown; in Ill Manors he sets the record straight by showing a human side to even his most ruthless characters.
Although it’s not immediately obvious (least of all to the characters), Four Lions star Riz Ahmed’s Aaron is the core of the film. His development is by far the most interesting, and his redemption is (at the risk of making him sound like Jesus) projected onto the entire cast. ‘We are all products of our environment’, the film’s tagline reminds us, but if Aaron can rescue himself from a traumatised back story which is only hinted at then even the darker characters can perhaps do likewise. The abused, drug-addled prostitute Michelle has a similar opportunity to become the hero of her own small story – a welcome burst of female empowerment in a film which, alas, largely relegates its women to the role of victim.
The rest of the cast is not entirely or even mostly professional, but it doesn’t show – this may be because the performances are generally very good, but it’s worth noting that no one character has much chance to fuck up onscreen. With a running time of over two hours, it’s clear that Drew was very unwilling to see any of his work end up on the cutting room floor, and the frenetic pace means many promising subplots are dangled in front of us before being whisked away. What was going on with Aaron’s mum? Or Jake, so easily seduced by the lure of gang life? It’s all a little busy, and a pitch-perfect final scene is sped through to make way for twenty minutes of contrived loose-end-up-tying – as Steven Neish points out on his superb website popcornaddiction, one thing Drew could have stood to borrow from his hero Quentin Tarantino was a little more structure for his ambitious nonlinear narrative. But these are minor issues and ones which will be smoothed out with experience – we can hardly criticise a debut director for ambition.
I’d like to address just one more of Chris Tookey’s heinous, prejudiced points. The Daily Mail describes Ill Manors‘ “sense of hectoring self-importance” as being “alienating and, frankly, ill-mannered”. I can’t stress how much this misses the point. There is a deeply moral undertone to Ill Manors which demonstrates its fundamental rejection of ‘gangster’ sensibilities – although they may not seem this way to Middle England, in the end the good guys survive and the bad guys go down. What could be more moral? It’s true that Ben Drew’s directorial reach exceeds his grasp for now, but this is one hell of a debut. I can’t wait to see what he does next.