Let’s rewind for a moment back to August 2011. Police stop search a young man in Hackney and set off a chain of events that exploded into widespread rioting and looting that was to spread across the country. Ever since then, people have been looking for a reason behind the mentality of these people’s actions. This is where Ben Drew (aka Plan B) comes in with his take on the subject with his debut feature, iLL Manors - a contradictory film that doesn’t quite cut as close to the bone as it could.
To make one thing clear, I did not come from a background or a lifestyle of any similarity to those depicted in the film, hence why I am not going to be talking about the film’s realism - but a little research shows that the events depicted seem to be quite close to real things that do go on in a London that David Cameron doesn’t want the world to see with all eyes on the upcoming Olympic frivolities. So this is a very brave move from Drew and he’s certainly chosen the right medium to open up a discussion on the underlying issues of the riots, rather than the damning news reports that reduce the actions to nothing more than ‘criminality’.
However, it’s a shame that this realism has been undone by some of the formal choices he made in the presentation of his film. A multi-stranded narrative, we are introduced to the main players by a little rhythm and poetry from the man himself (the film is a companion piece to his upcoming album of the same title and the tracks, I can only assume are taken from said album). Now this is a neat little touch, but what it ultimately boils down to is exposition of the character’s back-story, leading the characterisation to seem forced with an air of “they are this way because I wrote them this way”.
Combine this with some stylistic flourishes in the camera work and some over used time-lapse photography, the film feels much more like an overly long music video than a social realist film. The style of it does make me wonder as to whether a feature length film was the right platform for this project. He may have been able to do something similar to Daft Punk’s Interstellar 5555 (if you haven’t seen it, you absolutely MUST) - a long short film set to an album - and make it have more of an affect, which is what this film lacks. It’s kind of like watching a train crash, brutal and unrelenting with no hope in sight, which makes it’s completely convenient, happy ending more like the studios forced it on him than something he actually wanted to include in the finished product and essentially takes the venom out of the sting.
That’s what the real problem with iLL Manors is - it’s been dulled down by a main contradiction that runs throughout the film and is especially prevalent at the end. The idea is that we are all products of our environment, and this environment breeds a particular kind of person that would have been found in the rioting and looting. But the film ultimately states that while this is the case, we all have a choice in our complicity with this environment.
There are some really great moments in this film, and the message is one that’s all too clear. There are issues that need to be talked about and I commend Drew for bringing these ideas back to popular culture. But the way he tells the story has been done many times before, to much greater effect.