ill Manors (2012)
June 12, 2012 5 Comments
Having misplaced his friend’s phone during a visit to his “employer”, Aaron (Riz Ahmed) retraces his steps with an increasingly impatient Ed (Ed Skrein) in tow. When Ed starts forcing a disreputable prostitute he believes to be guilty of its theft to earn back the money he owes through a series of low-value transactions, they find themselves indirectly crossing paths with other members of Forest Gate’s criminal underbelly, namely aspiring kingpin Chris (Lee Allen), small-time gangster Marcel (Nick Sagar) and Russian pimp Vladimir (Mem Ferda).
To say that I approached ill Manors with an unprofessional amount of bias would be a bit of an understatement. I dislike rap, have little time for the gangster genre and boast a near-total intolerance towards the Essex accent. Indeed, if it hadn’t been for the unusually polarized nature of the film’s reviews I doubt I would have even given it a chance in the first place. I honestly can’t tell you how glad I am that I changed my mind.
Comprising six interconnected narratives, each featuring a pair of characters struggling to navigate the mean streets of London’s East End, ill Manors is a non-linear memory-test in the vein of Quentin Tarantino, of whom rapper-turned-director Ben “Plan B” Drew’s is a self-confessed fan. Throwing his audience in at the deep end with little introduction or contextualization, you quickly forget where the story started and are left instead to relive the same seven days and re-experience various encounters from a number of very different, yet consistently bleak perspectives.
The effect is genuinely immersive – if exhausting – putting paid to giant IMAX screens and pesky 3D glasses with a story that will swallow you whole, however hard you might try to resist. Providing the opening narration as well as a series of musical interludes that both further and provide commentary on the plot, Drew is not only capable but reassuringly confident in his role as director. Wringing harrowing, heart-breaking performances out of inexperienced, non-professional and child actors, he maintains complete control over everything happening onscreen, capturing his characters and setting with stylishly evocative visuals.
While there are an almost overwhelming number of emotional sucker-punches scattered throughout, rendering it impossible to pay lip-service and due respect to each and every one, a number of the arcs inevitably stand out more than others. One of the first characters we meet is Kirby (Keith Coggins) – a drug dealer returning from prison to find one of his employers is now running the local ring – who proves surprisingly sympathetic as the last remnant of a bygone era of criminality. Jake (Ryan De La Cruz), on the other hand, is a wannabe gangster who soon finds himself playing scapegoat to the manipulative Marcel (Nick Sagar). Katya (Natalie Press), meanwhile, is forced to give up her newborn child in a desperate attempt to protect him from her life as an immigrant prostitute.
This is undoubtedly Ahmed’s movie, however, and in his struggles as Aaron to reconcile the actions of those around him the film finds its much-needed moral compass. From his Jack-the-lad introduction through his later encounters with drug-addled Michelle, Katya’s abandoned baby and unforgiving partner in crime Ed, he undergoes a transformation that offers one of the film’s few shots at redemption. Simply as a result of the film’s scope, however, many of his key relationships go sadly undeveloped – namely those involving his social worker and long-absent mother. It is only alongside aspiring teenage model Jodie (a truly impressive performance from Eloise Smith) that he is ever in believably like-minded company.
It seems somehow unfair to criticise ill Manors for being too industrious; Drew’s only real failing is a product of his own limited experience and impassioned ambition. Unlike the carefully ordered and signposted segments of Tarantino’s better work, ill Manors gives you no useful indication of how many episodes there are to go until the ordeal is finally, mercifully over. While this isn’t a problem for most of the film’s admittedly lengthy two-hour run, towards the end it does feel as though the film has reached its natural conclusion with a particularly grisly plot development, only for the fade to black to be undone for another, final layer to be added to the narrative. While Katya’s story is as beautifully acted, compellingly directed and stylishly shot as those that preceded it, it does feel like the straw that broke the distraught audience member’s back.
Over-long, over-plotted and – in the case of certain morals – rather overdone, ill Manors will not be for everyone. With the musical interludes (I can call rap ‘music’ now, this is progress) going some way to disarm the more melodramatic contrivances, however, Ben Drew’s film is still a towering achievement in storytelling, transmedia and social commentary. Taking his original Adam Deacon-starring short and developing it into a sprawling, intricate and non-linear web of gut-wrenching misfortune, Drew has created something truly potent, unexpectedly powerful and extremely special.