Amid the pomp and pageantry in the build-up to the Queen’s Jubilee this June, there lurks another England. In Ben Drew’s directorial debut, Ill Manors, he rips open the underbelly of London; populated with drug addicts and dealers, prostitutes and people living on the outer limits of society.
Better known for his persona as the lead singer of Plan B, Drew has an angry and passionate tale to tell about his home town of London. His latest single Ill Manors says it all: “Oi, what you looking at, you little rich boy?/ We’re poor round here, run home and lock your door/ Don’t come round here no more/ You could get robbed for real/ Because my manor’s ill.”
The film is remorseless and without sentimentality, drawn from Drew’s own experiences of living near a council estate in Forest Gate. The dialogue has an authenticity about it, no doubt due to the 28-year-old director’s early life and experiences – he was kicked out of school at 16 and his father left home when he was five months old. Drew’s turning point came when he was placed at Tunmarsh Pupil Referral Unit in Plaistow, where he says he was encouraged and given hope for the first time.
In real life, Drew found a way out of poverty and an outlet for his creativity at the school which he says changed his life. And yet, in his film, there are no positive role models and no redemption for the film’s characters.
There is no glamorisation of the life of gang members who are initiated into crime with the promise of sex, drugs and cool clothes, but end up with a bullet in the head. I’m not asking for a happy ending, but to have a feeling by the end of the film that there is at least some hope of a way out for these characters, rather than a completely nihilistic vision.
The dystopia of stark, bleak industrial landscapes is beautifully photographed, and there’s a particularly haunting scene with the O2 haloed in the background – an ironic location as it’s a place where the biggest stars live out a fantasy life that these kids can only dream about.
Quite often in this genre of gritty realism, prostitution is portrayed as a career choice, with scantily clad girls cavorting around a pole, who are up for anything to have a bit of fun. I was thankful that Drew steered clear of this, instead depicting hookers as needing to turn tricks in order to support their crack addiction.
Riz Ahmed (Four Lions, Trishna), turns in a terrific performance as Aaron. He is the only person in the film with any kind of moral compass. Aaron half-heartedly remonstrates with Ed, his best friend, for pimping out a prostitute to a seemingly endless number of takeaway workers, in revenge for stealing his mobile phone. Ahmed has great comic timing, and there’s a very funny scene with him rescuing an abandoned baby left on a train.
It’s a film with a message, albeit a very depressing one, but one that needs to be told. A wake-up call to those in comfy jobs and on good incomes – to “Middle England”, as Drew calls it, to have compassion for those who have fallen through the cracks of society and are in need of a helping hand.
Ill Manors is released on 6th June.
Watch the trailer of Ill Manors here