Britain isn’t exactly awash with artists pumping out protest songs any more. Back in 1977 during the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, The Sex Pistols were sailing down the Thames to the tune of “God Save The Queen,” but 35 years later during her Diamond Jubilee there was a flotilla heading down the Thames and Madness performing on the roof of Buckingham Palace instead. Plan B, or Ben Drew as he’s also known, could just be the closest we have in the 21st Century to anything resembling The Sex Pistols. Sneaking into the mainstream back in 2010 with his soulful sophomore album The Defamation of Strickland Banks, Drew may be uniquely placed to send out the kind of message to a wider audience in a nation which experienced widespread rioting little under twelve months ago.
The title track to Drew’s iLL Manors rings out like a poisoned ode to David Cameron’s "Broken Britain." Think what you like about the politics surrounding it all, it’s refreshing to see a popular artist putting his head above the parapet and fighting the corner of what he perceives to be Britain’s disadvantaged youth. He believes society has failed to nurture them, that the media has subsequently demonised them through terms such as "chav." Now he’s rapping about them and representing them as best he can. Except, he’s not just rapping about them, he’s gone and made a whole film about them. The aforementioned song actually serves as the title track on the "iLL Manors" soundtrack.
Drew has ventured into film before. Audiences less aware of his work as a musician may recognise him from the likes of “Adulthood,” “Harry Brown,” and “126.96.36.199,” and later this year he’ll star alongside the venerable Ray Winstone in “The Sweeney.” For the most part in “iLL Manors” though, Drew keeps himself behind the camera (save for the film’s final shot) as a writer-director, although he can be heard throughout as the film’s rapping narrator. Said narration forms the spine of an ambitious narrative structure which aims to tell a series of interconnected stories — with each story being introduced by a different rap song.
Taking place over the course of seven days in an East-London suburb, the film weaves together eight core characters who are all caught up in some way in a depressingly grim world of violence and deprivation. For their part, when introducing each new story, the raps work well. You’re almost willing the next story to begin at stages to hear Drew spit out some more lyrics set to a pounding bassline and deftly constructed montage that can articulate some of his ideas far better than some of his other clumsy filmmaking can. They inject a fresh verve and pace into the scenes, and give them an importance and immediacy that the time-jumping narrative often needs. While Drew may be still learning his trade in terms of filmmaking, he’s clearly light-years ahead as a lyricist and musician.
But the film is often let down by his lack of experience behind the camera. You can see what Drew’s going for during scenes which employ slo-mo, freeze frames and camera-phone footage, for example, but that doesn’t stop them looking any less cinematic and ripping you out of the moment. The young filmmaker will probably also face accusations of his film being little more than misery porn because – and we really can’t stress this enough – it is extraordinarily downbeat and often very tough to swallow. Were the film just another gritty urban thriller, we might be inclined to agree, but Drew does have that central message that he’s trying to get across and we'd argue being this overwhelmingly negative is probably the best way to do so.
And boy, when Drew really hones in on that message within the stories, he really hits the nail on the head. When a drug dealer guns down a child in a cruel act of revenge we briefly see the dealer depicted as the same child we saw during the montage sequence in which he was introduced. It’s a chilling moment, and one of many that really makes you question whether these characters ever had a chance. Was there ever any possibility that Anouska Mond’s Michelle wouldn’t end up having to prostitute herself to pay back a drug dealer, or any eventuality where Natalie Press’ Katya doesn’t feel compelled to abandon her baby on a train? How does a community and a society deteriorate to the extent that a child gets his hands on a gun? Are these characters condemned by nature or nurture, or should they also be bearing some of the responsibility themselves? These are the questions that Drew is constantly (and successfully) urging you to ask.
During the baggier moments in its 121-minute running time, however, the audience is probably given far too long to ponder these questions. While Drew may have some success with his broad strokes, the subtlety is lost by trying to tell too many stories and not being able to devote enough time to each character. Riz Ahmed, he film’s de facto lead, portrays the most sympathetic character in Aaron, but even he feels short-changed. Come the final scenes when we’re really asked to identify and emote with this guy who may just have a chance at escaping the same tragic fate as the film’s other characters, we just don’t know the character well enough to do so. Thank goodness then that the acting is strong throughout, from the more established Ahmed all the way down to the first-time actors like Ed Skrein.
Slick and awkward in equal measure, and definitely not an easy watch, look closely enough and there’s something pertinent right at the heart of Drew’s debut. In a year in which we’re told that the eyes of the world will be on London as the city celebrates the Diamond Jubilee and hosts the Olympics, it’s only fair that there’s someone out there trying to put forward an alternative view. [B-]
"iLL Manors" opens in the U.K. today. No release date for the U.S. has yet been set.