Platinum music artist Ben Drew makes an auspicious feature helming debut with microbudget British urban drama “Ill Manors.” The second fully achieved effort to come out of the $187,000-per-pic Film London Microwave scheme (following Eran Creevy’s “Shifty” in 2008), this ambitious ensembler will benefit hugely on home turf from the profile of Drew’s rapper-crooner alter ego Plan B, who sold more than a million copies locally of album “The Defamation of Strickland Banks.” Foreign prospects are less rosy, although critical acclaim, festival berths and lead actor Riz Ahmed (“Four Lions”) should help position this as a hot niche item.
The British urban genre peaked commercially and creatively in 2008, with “Adulthood,” scripted and directed by Noel Clarke. Since then, it’s been a case of diminishing returns for a run of “me too” propositions such as “Shank” and “Sket,” although auds rallied to spoofy comedy “Anuvahood” in 2011. “Adulthood” showcased the debut acting performance of Drew, who had then yet to break out as a major music artist, and who went on to explore similar menacing terrain in Michael Caine vigilante pic “Harry Brown.”
Significantly expanded from his 2008 music-based short “Michelle,” “Ill Manors” adds five or six major characters, interweaving several storylines into a vivid slice of East London life encompassing crack dealing, kidnapping, sex trafficking and two double homicides. “This is ill manors, where dark shit goes on at night,” intones Drew, in narration that will be repeatedly heard on evocative music cuts that handily fill in backstory and clarify exposition. In London urban slang, your manor, or “ends,” is your home neighborhood.
The complicated scenario begins with drug dealer Ed (Ed Skrein) becoming separated from his cellphone when sidekick Aaron (Ahmed) leaves it at the home of fellow pusher Kirby (Keef Coggins), recently released from prison. The pic explores Kirby’s relationship with former protege Chris (Lee Allen), now the local Mr. Big, while a street altercation with young rival Marcell (Nick Sagar) motivates the latter to vengeance.
The first truly riveting moment arrives when 13-year-old Jake (Ryan De La Cruz), in attempting to buy some weed from Marcell, is forced to beat up his own friend, and subsequently rewarded with admission to the thug’s inner circle of cruel sycophants. Little does he realize that by night’s end, his status as Marcell’s youngest soldier will result in a horrifying assignment.
The film segues into a black comic interlude, lifted directly from “Michelle,” as Ed fingers crack-addicted prostitute Michelle (Anouska Mond) as the phone thief, and recoups his loss by pimping her out at bargain-basement prices, over the protests of the likable Aaron. Aaron confirms his status as the film’s conscience in the second hour, which switches focus to an enslaved sex worker (a somewhat randomly cast Natalie Press, “My Summer of Love”) trying to elude her Russian captors. The drama climaxes melodramatically at the Earl of Essex pub, which, in TV-soap style, serves as a convenient meeting place for the characters throughout.
Perfs, from non-pros and trained thesps, make up in authenticity what they sometimes lack in finesse. Ahmed is an effective anchor, and young De La Cruz impresses when he switches from macho swagger to scared child in a heartbeat. In no small part thanks to Drew’s musical contributions, “Ill Manors” achieves a soulful, poetic depth hitherto absent from the British urban genre.
The pic’s ambitious production work outstrips its bare-bones budget, notably in the lensing by “Moon” cinematographer Gary Shaw, and editing from a four-strong team that puzzles out the rhythm of the “Pulp Fiction”-inspired structure. In fact, Drew broke outside his designated budget with an epic post-production period, financed in part with his own coin, that encompassed additional shooting to flesh out characters and fill in the gaps of a coincidence-strewn narrative.
U.K. distrib Revolver’s 200-screen June 8 rollout will be followed in July by Plan B’s “Ill Manors” album, including several music cuts from the film.
For the record, Drew will be seen this fall in his biggest acting role to date, opposite Ray Winstone in London cop actioner “The Sweeney.”