iLL Manors

Clearly not content with writing, performing and producing hugely successful multimillion-selling records, and adding acting to his CV when he’s not busy, Ben Drew, or Plan B, has chucked in filmmaking for good measure.

As a huge Tarantino fan (who isn’t?), Drew was always going to give linear, fluid storytelling a miss in favour of something more staggered and challenging. It’s a tricky feat; if it goes well then you feast with Pulp Fiction at the table of tasty treats, but if it goes badly then you eat from the bin with John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars.

Somewhat predictably, Drew has opted to tell an interweaving story based on the streets of London, specifically Forest Gate, where he grew up. iLL Manors examines the mindsets, morality and actions of several different characters, with plenty of grit and intensity, manifesting in both mental and physical form.

This might already sound a little similar to other Brit efforts such as Bullet Boy, Kidulthood and the sequel Adulthood, which featured Drew as a supporting actor, but there are plenty of issues to tackle and stories to tell on the streets and estates of London.
During the course of iLL Manors, we meet Kirby (Keith Coggins), a middle-aged drug dealer fresh from a prison term, and his former protégé Chris (Lee Allen), who now runs things around town, clearly possessing the intimidating physique to do so. The two are no longer allies, which has more than a little to do with Kirby’s treatment of Chris at a younger age.

Meanwhile, Ed (Ed Skrein), a drug dealer with a spiky temperament, and his friend Aaron (Riz Ahmed) are in search of the former’s phone, which seems to have been stolen by prostitute and crack-fanatic Michelle (Anouska Mond). As they hunt her down, it becomes clear that she will have to find another particularly grim and harrowing way to replace the cost of the phone, which she denies ever stealing in the first place.

On top of this we have Katya (Natalie Press), a new mother on the run from Russian mobsters who have been using her in a sickening sex trafficking scheme, whilst early teen Jake (Ryan De La Cruz) finds himself accepted into a violent gang, led by a criminal looking to test his young recruit’s immediate loyalty with a brutal task.

It all sounds fairly grisly and downbeat, which is accurate, but it doesn’t feel like Drew is just trying to make a disturbing movie to pass the time, make some cash and stun a few people. This is a snapshot of a difficult and disturbing way of life, where drug addiction, street respect and money are the driving forces of life.

These problems are not exclusive to Forest Gate, or even London, and Drew isn’t trying to imply that his childhood home has it tougher, but the capital’s capacity to contain sprawling, complex underworld relationships makes it an ideal setting for a nonlinear crime drama. Drew is working with what he knows here, and whilst some may argue that there is some caricaturing present here, others would disagree. There is nothing going on here that tests reality; a lot of the struggles, connections and tribulations which drive this story are not fictitious by any means. Yes, it is convenient how the stories find a way of meeting up, but this is a redundant criticism. Coincidences do exist, and using them for the purposes of narrative, providing they don’t stretch belief and remain sparse, is a perfectly fair use of artistic licence.

One of the things that sets iLL Manors aside from similar crime dramas is Drew’s partial foray into the world of the musical. He narrates the story, for the most part, using rap, and it works well as an original storytelling device. It also provided material for an album, which subsequently gave Drew his second UK number one.

Drew’s directorial style and imaginative use of camerawork show great promise, and obvious talent. A lot of work has been put into the film’s editing and aesthetic, with a mix of quick-cut segments complimented by more lingering sequences, and some interesting ideas spliced in which highlight Drew’s love for the quirky filmmaker. His directing is not exactly subtle, and some parts don’t work as well as probably planned, but for a debut behind the camera, this is very impressive stuff. He has inexperience of course, and this is by no means a perfect movie, but it a stunning debut effort. You have to wonder what other kinds of stories, genres and film styles he could really lend his hand to, but for now his immediate work demands acclaim.

Enough about Drew; the cast put in an excellent shift, with many genuinely showing up the ‘talent’ in movies and TV both sides of the pond. Perhaps no one is being asked to drift too far from something they know, but that doesn’t make line delivery, emotion and expression easy – they still have to make the audience believe there is no script, no cameras and that this story, and the world you see on-screen, is real.

This is a compelling, riveting drama, which highlights issues many will probably refuse to accept as genuine, and whilst highlighting provides no direct solution, this film will be watched by and connect with many. iLL Manors does not glorify violence, in fact it clearly abhors it, and with this message being delivered by someone who is no doubt a role model, surely the film can have a strong and positive effect on those battling with moral ambivalence.

The style, and rap-driven narrative, will not work for everyone, but equally there are plenty who would struggle through Calamity Jane, so it’s just a case of taste. Ben Drew has shown he has the chops to handle a film, as well as act in one, and he can even provide the soundtrack. There are inevitable question marks over versatility, both as an actor and director, but bear in mind this is a rapper who went on to release a smash-hit soul album.

DVD Rental rating 8.5/10

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