Ill Manors Review
Musicians-turned-filmmakers have a tendency towards self-indulgence. By pure coincidence Ill Manors arrives onto Blu-ray and DVD the same week as the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, which may very well be the pinnacle of the trend. Back in 1967 the Fab Four made an hour-long film for the BBC because they could. It was their power and their prestige which allowed them behind a movie camera, not their respective qualities as filmmakers. Outside of their natural habitat, the lack of experience clearly showed. Whilst the musical numbers were expectedly fine, the rest of the picture resembled nothing more than a glorified home movie. The only differences were the production values, a cast and crew on the payroll and the end results being beamed into the households of an entire nation on Boxing Day, not that everyone took too kindly to this.
Undeterred, Ringo returned to the director’s chair five years later for Born to Boogie, ostensibly a T. Rex concert movie, albeit one that also made room for a series of sketches and outtakes that, once again, reeked of self-indulgence. In-between times he’d also acted for Frank Zappa in 200 Motels, which at least had a non-musical co-director in Tony Palmer to try and balance out its more exorbitant moments. Unfortunately the same could not be said for Bob Dylan’s Renaldo and Clara (almost five hours long in its original version) or Prince’s Graffiti Bridge or any number of vanity projects you care to mention. Of course some quality occasionally comes through – David Byrne’s True Stories and Neil Young’s Human Highway are both charmingly quirky without overdoing it – but still that fear remains. Indeed, when Madonna announced her feature debut last year (the Edward and Mrs Simpson biopic, W.E.) it was hardly to the most enthusiastic of receptions.
The latest pop star to try his hand behind the camera is Ben Drew, aka Plan B. For Ill Manors he writes as well as directs and not only the screenplay. As you would expect (and as was true of almost all of the films mentioned so far) he also composed the soundtrack, in this case securing a number one album and a Mercury Music Award nomination. Given such success it’s tempting to see Ill Manors the movie as a mere adjunct to Ill Manors the LP, although that wouldn’t be entirely fair. Drew uses his tracks as a narrative tool, allowing them to furnish the tale or to illustrate flashbacks and backstories. In combination with the film’s multi-character, multi-narrative structure (a little like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts but with jumps back and forth through time) the approach is an effective one. The movie and its soundtrack complement each other well, neither feeling like an off-shoot of the other, and in this respect at least Drew avoids accusations of self-indulgence.
During the on-disc ‘making of’, Drew states how Ill Manors was driven by “a need to explain”. The aim of the picture was one of realism, he continues, to portray the underside of inner-city living in as truthful a light as possible. Essentially Drew wanted to put faces – and a bunch of stories – to the phrase ‘Broken Britain’ without having to resort to caricature or glamorisation. Hence the multi-character approach and its ability to provide a cross-section across various divides. However, whilst the key players differ in age, race and gender, they all belong to the criminal underclass. Everyone in Ill Manors ticks at least one of the following boxes: pimp, prostitute, shady landlord, sexual deviant, dealer, addict, criminal, jailbird or murderer – and it is here where the problems begin.
Whilst Drew never glamorises this assortment, he does ask that his audience wallow in their collective miseries. Over the course of almost two hours we are faced with all sorts of dispiriting situations, though the reasoning behind it isn’t especially clear. Ill Manors’ “need to explain” doesn’t really cut it in this respect as so many of its characters lack depth. With the exception of one or two key figures displaying a slight moral compass (including Riz Ahmed’s ostensible lead), the vast majority are little more than one-dimensional villains, there to do bad things without even the most negligible hint of a conscience or humanity. If Drew hoped to have his audience understand these characters then shouldn’t he at least have provided us with a means of connecting with them? Because otherwise it’s hard to identify, for example, with a man who wants to violently sexually abuse a woman over a stolen phone. Furthermore, when explanations are offered up they tend towards the simplistic. The reasoning behind such behaviours is explained away by growing up in a care home or having a mother die of an overdose. For Drew it is always a case of nurture over nature and that’s as far as the argument gets.
Consequently there is a danger that Ill Manors will lapse into an anonymous trawl through bad people doing bad things. Thanks to its lack of depth the film risks becoming little more than a succession of confrontations; everyone is angry, but no-one has the eloquence to express that anger through any means other than violence. Thankfully the standard of performance is at a level where some of the actors are able to lend a dash of character (or charisma) to events, though not always. Natalie Press is given woefully little to work with as an illegal immigrant prostitute on the run from her pimps with a new-born child in tow. Interestingly the Plan B numbers which make up the soundtrack do demonstrate moments of invention and nuance, which only makes it all the more unfortunate that this never gets translated into the wider narrative.
In place of such qualities Drew prefers to up the volume and up the flash. Perhaps a side-effect of this being his first feature, he does find it difficult not to go overboard on the visuals. There are split-screen interludes, time lapses, slow-motion switches, mobile phone footage and so forth, much of which are entirely necessary. Indeed, the location footage – Ill Manors was shot in and around Forest Gate in London – is often terrific and doesn’t need dressing up. Of course, we’re maybe not expecting a level of realism akin to Ken Loach (far too many people die over the course of the movie for that to be the case), but the pop promo stylisation only adds to the paper-thin qualities. Arguably Drew should be querying the contradictions inherent in the excess (why, for example, do expensive tastes in clothes, cars and the like never extend to food? – everyone still eats shitty takeaways) rather than just adding to them.
With that said, there are a number of good points worth mentioning. Particularly strong is the decision to structure the narrative via jumps back and forth in time. Whilst on paper this may sound a little tricksy – and yet more of that empty flash – the reality of the situation is that it allows Drew greater control. By bouncing between his various characters and those various moments where their lives intersect he’s able to maintain a tight pace that serves Ill Manors well. Similarly, he also knows how to deliver a mordant punchline when necessary. No doubt this comes from his experience as a songwriter, but a number of the vignettes do possess effective little pay-offs. Also worth mentioning is the space Drew allows his actors. In some cases this risks exposing their limitation, though generally it allows them to inject just that little bit more character than the screenplay allows. Keith Coggins and Lee Allen (both of whom came to Ill Manors with no previous acting experience) especially impress.
And so, as musician-turned-filmmakers go, Drew is guiltier of excess than he is self-indulgence. (Tellingly he didn’t cast himself, despite earlier roles in Adulthood and Harry Brown, save for the briefest of cameos.) There’s promise here but he needs to tone down the ‘style’ and perhaps find himself a collaborator to ensure a meatier, more nuanced script. Given the amount of coverage Ill Manors has received – and the number of discs it is likely to shift – I suspect a second shot will come around soon enough.
Ill Manors arrives onto UK Blu-ray courtesy of Revolver Entertainment. The film appears in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and mostly impresses on the visual front. The image is as crisp and clean as you would expect from such a recent production with the disc ably handling Gary Shaw’s photography. Instances of banding do make themselves known from time to time (especially in the time-lapse cloud formations), but this is the only real problem. The soundtrack, on the other hand, is flawless. Presented in DTS-HD Master Audio form, it copes well with both dialogue and musical content. An audio descriptive track is also available as are optional English subtitles for the hard-of-hearing.
The Blu-ray contains a host of additional features, some of which are exclusive to this format. A 17-minute ‘making of’ speaks to Drew and some of his main collaborators and performers to relate the film’s origins, its intents and production history. Interestingly, Drew first became involved in filmmaking through Mike Figgis and a project he was doing for the London Film Festival. That particular short – Bizness Woman – is included among extras as is Michelle, another short which found itself becoming one of Ill Manors’ plot strands. Both combine storytelling with rap performances from Plan B making them appear more like extended promos. Two music videos (including Pieces, which Drew also directed) are included too.
Exclusive to the Blu-ray are a collection of interviews which are actually outtakes from the ‘making of’ plus a TED lecture delivered by Drew in 2011. Here he talks about his upbringing and his music as well as filmmaking over the course of 24-minutes. Rounding off the package we also have five deleted scenes (most of which are extensions or alternatives to those which made the final cut) and uncut footage of the time-lapse sequences which appear throughout the film.