Ill Manors Review

On hearing a musician’s plans to trek across the fringes of industry and transition into film, or vice versa, the initial response invariably goes something like this: surprise, derision, and callous anticipation.

Surprise that someone dare follow Promethean ambition at the attempt to conquer two worlds.

Derision for the precocious naivety that this shows.

Callous anticipation of how crap the result will probably turn out, how humorous this will be, and how much new pub-time quips will be generated; after all, there’s nothing like a good razzing over a pint.

So when I learnt that I was to review Ben Drew’s new film, a.k.a the treacle-voiced, rap-spitting paradox Plan B, I was… well you can guess.

Not that I’m cynical, mind.

If this sounds pathetic and cruel, that’s because it is. But it’s also the grating default-setting we Brits seem to have in response to people who try to do everything.

Take Madonna, one of the most iconic women of the eighties, nineties and even noughties; yet news of her involvement in another film is still met with curled-lip mockery.

Sure, thrusting your pelvis at the camera in something only fourteen year old gymnasts should wear will mar anyone’s credibility, but us Brits make up their minds before we’ve even seen something for ourselves so we can prepare our oh so witty jibes well in advance.

The multi-talented creator is a tough nut to crack.

“Are you sitting comfortably?” the self-proclaiming narratorial voice of Ben Drew broke over the introduction. Stating his role point-blank, there to “make significant” the seemingly trivial events, details and backstories that might otherwise fade into oblivion, Drew’s self-affirming narrator raises the shadowy ghost of Brecht from his grave and throws it centre stage.

The father of theatrical alienation, Brechtian principle distances the audience from the action on stage or in this case screen, reminding spectators that what is being shown is a mere representation of reality.

We shouldn’t identify emotionally with the characters we’re about to witness; rather they should provoke us into critical reflection of both the world around us as well as ourselves. This ain’t just another Kidulthood, kids.

Ill Manors follows a pocket of society on the fringes of the East End, not so much living as surviving. Social loyalties are proved through aggression, power is asserted through violence, recreation is fuelled by drugs, and murder is just another job to be done in the endless battle to be accepted, or annihilate your rivals.

A teenage kid accelerates from a pathetic attempt to buy drugs, to smacking a tortured hostage, before climactically pulling the trigger of a gun that is as alien to him as the violence he feels obliged to accept.

As the film’s is repeatedly interrupted by Drew’s narrative raps, you’re forced to view the characters and the action they’re involved in with objective eyes. Eyes that are not allowed to lose themselves in emotional fantasy or take sides.

A crack whore is the off-wagon result of a molested childhood, the merciless gang leader of abuse and humiliation. At the moment where judgement is poised to be passed, Drew chimes in with the reminder that everything has a backstory, a catalyst.

What seems like senseless, thug-born evil is still the result of experiences that would send a sane man running for Beachy Head.

It’s an interesting trope to use, even if it does stilt the narrative thread somewhat and fragment the natural flow of certain scenes. Then again, perhaps that’s the idea.

The point of all this? Those headlines and horrors read by morning commuters as their weary eyes lick the Metro’s pages are not simply the cataclysmic pastimes of riotous “yoof’s” and badly brought-up thugs, rather there’s a real dystopian wasteland of disenfranchised society out there.

And the need for acceptance and therefore survival is powerful enough to obliterate the notion of a moral compass.

At times the character’s heavy handed backstories and skewed camerawork that accompany them feel a little melodramatic and patronising. The opening montage of aggressive drug-taking shoves indulgent shots of lines, needles, powder mountains, pills and all possible narcotics paraphernalia in your face, so that you’re left feeling like a bemused seventeen year old holding a packed lunch in a dinosaur lunchbox.

Yes, OK, there-are-lots-of-drugs out there; we get it.

A true cynic would also point out that the lyrically delivered backstories conveniently leave Drew with not only a film, but a soundtrack that doubles as an entire new album.

But as we’ve already established, that’s not me.

Then again, we’re living in such a multimedia, cross-pollination age, it’s also pretty darn clever.

Regardless, it’s an interesting way to tell Ill Manors story. It’s a story that’s been told before, and a point that’s been made before; be it through Kidulthood or Kids. Both sides of the Atlantic pond have massaged this our-world-is-more-fucked-than-you-can-imagine motif.

What’s powerful about Ben Drew’s directorial debut is the sense that there are no lengths we will not extend ourselves to gain acceptance. Even in the face of crushed spirits and skewed morals, to belong often feels greater than the lonely self and can sometimes feel like the only salvation on life’s short, bleak horizon.

Seraphina Trent D’Arby

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June 2012
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