Ben Drew’s directorial debut kicked up an awful lot of column inches on release back in June. In taking us on what he calls an ‘urban safari’ Ill Manors gave us a look at the intimidating spectre of ‘Broken Britain’. Reviews were alight with the power of a million buzzwords and the film was lost amongst all the bloody politics of it all.
But politics aside (although not for long) the film itself however is of real note. Concerning as it does a group who are seemingly isolated in a Britain all too foreign to many of us it tells the story of what is tantamount to a group of caged animals and those who suffer in their wake. Throughout it’s running time Drew will weave together a fair few short stories, running the gamut through prostitution, to drugs, to child abuse, to violence, whilst we (and they) have nothing but the vain hope that some sort of redemption will come. It rarely does.
Whilst many hailed it as a timely and effective (albeit flawed) enterprise not everyone was as kind. The ‘liberal left’ called Ill Manors a reflective and informative look at the motivations behind, and the proliferation of, gang culture. The reactionary, ignorant British right (Chris Tookey) on the other hand termed the film “a pathetic parade of British gangster clichés cobbled together with no discernible artistry or point.”
Well as usual he’s wrong. But not entirely. Ill Manors is a messy film. The plot strands almost don’t intersect to an extent that fully justifies the feature film format. It’s true, it frequently feels like a lot of short stories somewhat clunkily brought together, but, for reasons I’m about to outline I think he just about gets away with it. And why not? An honestly episodic film (the rap interludes which compromise the accompanying and eponymous album make this delineation fairly explicit) is always better than one which tries to get through under the mere guise of narrative linearity.
Drew’s effort is just meant to be a snapshot, an insight, a film of powerful moments that will hopefully change your view of the people trapped in these situations. At no point however does it excuse the terrible things the characters do. It just tells it like it is (or at least as Drew sees it) and let’s the chips fall where they may. For that at least Ill Manors – no matter how repulsive or unbelievable parts of it may seem – is hard to fault, despite all of it’s faults. It’s brutal and fanciful and out to make a point and that’s fine by me.
It is problematic however that the only women in the film (aside from the somewhat marginal social worker) seem to be either prostitutes or impressionable schoolgirls. Whilst it’s true that the world depicted is one characterised by male dominance it seems that Drew has little time for female characters as sources of anything but narrative. But this isn’t all as bad as it sounds. Last year Helen Mirren decried Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s lack of female characters as being sexist. She was wrong. As with Tinker Tailor Ill Manors explores a male centric thesis, nowhere is this more clear that with John Cooper Clarke’s reading of his masterful Pity The Plight of Young Fellows. Ill Manors may be a film focused almost entirely on men but it’s not one that looks upon them favourably.
Men in Ill Manors are foolish. They are easily deceived, easily manipulated and largely irrational morons. If the film is saying anything it’s that. Just as with the women in the film if they don’t get the right guidance, the right direction, the right help then they will fight and destroy themselves. It isn’t just women who get abused in Ill Manors, it’s everyone. That the men are wielding the power is indicative of the barbaric (albeit apparently exaggerated) situation they find themselves in. Drew’s film therefore may not have a completely satisfying
The extras as they are partially constitute some music videos,