iLL Manors

Director    Ben Drew
Starring    Riz Ahmed, Ed Skrein, Natalie Press
Release    6 JUN (UK)    Certificate 18
4 stars

Ed Williamson

1st June 2012

Being middle class, I am of course far too terrified to set foot on a council estate. No doubt I'd be set upon by a gang of toughs who would make off with my pocketbook and timepiece. And the trouble with British council estate dramas made by people like me is that they always focus on one character's dream of escape, in the belief that he deserves to transcend his environment because he is good, while everyone around him is bad. (Eddie Marsan, who is far more qualified than I am to do so, said something similar in the Metro the other week.) I've seen a million of these films. But until Plan B's iLL Manors, I hadn't seen one that had no interest in pandering to my middle-class sensibilities, and focused on documentary, not deliverance.

I'd pretty much viewed British inner-city crime drama as a dead genre, it having been Danny-Dyered to a straight-to-DVD death over the last ten years or so. And after learning that the Guardian was earnestly championing Plan B/Ben Drew's debut feature film to shit and back, I approached it with the same kind of caution I apply on the nightbus back from Brixton. Was it really going to have anything new to say?

No, was the answer, but it didn't want to. All it wanted to do was present a case of affairs, spare us both the embarrassment of prosletysing about how awful it all was, and let me on my way, shank-free. In short, it only wanted to tell a story – quite a few stories, actually – and dared to suggest that, in a working-class setting, that might be enough.

Can't find a Philips-head screwdriver? Shoot your bathroom mirror off the wall instead.

In among the many story threads at work throughout iLL Manors – truly, this is Chav, Actually – we find Riz Ahmed's Aaron, the closest thing here to the traditional innocent hero; Kirby, a drug-dealer trying to claim back his turf after a stretch in prison; Ed, a violent bastard who thinks someone's stolen his phone; and Katya, an East-European prostitute trying to protect herself and her baby from Russian gangsters. Much of this is woven together using exposition through a Wu-Tang-influenced soundtrack that Drew raps over the top, while montages, often in stop-motion, illustrate the lyrics. This sounds like a terrible idea, of course, and could have fallen flat on its face in such an inexperienced filmmaker's hands, but it's surprising how unobtrusive a device it proves.

In all of this there are scenes of shocking callousness (Ed zeroes in on prostitute Michelle as the phone thief, and thinks nothing of pimping her out to a series of Chicken Cottage employees up and down the high street in lieu of payment. "OK, ten quid and a kebab," he offers to one who thinks £20's a bit steep), and laugh-out-loud funny dialogue. Even when Kirby is brazenly attempting to paedo up a couple of 15-year-old girls in a crowded cafe, you're laughing at his manner. You even admire his cheek.

Loveable paedo Kirby. He's not a proper paedo though: he does it with a laugh and a joke.

When the violence comes it's fairly matter-of-fact, presented as part of the grammar of everyday life rather than force-fed to you with brutal shock tactics. Even the story of Jake, a kid who gets drawn in by the lure of gang life and gets in far deeper than he wanted, is treated in much the same way, without hand-wringing or overt moral message.

Though it's positive if it sparks debate, it's a shame in a way that iLL Manors is being received as a thinkpiece on the 2011 riots (the accompanying song of the same name is a direct response to them), because making it a cause célèbre masks the fact that it's an extremely skilful piece of multi-arc storytelling by a writer/director who seems more than capable of transferring his ability to other genres. The chance to do so might be pretty limited in Britain, though – unless he wants to do a costume drama. I'm thinking he probably doesn't.

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