Let’s all go on an urban safari

Josephine Grahl reviews Plan B’s iLL Manors. There will be plot spoilers after the jump.

As the bunting is taken down after the Jubilee, and David Cameron looks forward to the Olympics being a “giant advertisement” for Britain, it’s perhaps a good moment to be reminded of last year’s most dramatic London event, the riots which erupted in August. Rapper Plan B’s song iLL Manors was one of the first mainstream cultural responses to the riots, and he’s followed it up with a film of the same title which looks at the lives of a group of young people growing up in the impoverished council estates of Forest Gate in Newham, east London, where he was born and grew up. iLL Manors doesn’t deal with the riots themselves, instead focusing on the day-to-day life of a group of drug dealers and their hangers-on in the fictional Circle Estate.

The film is visually striking, with a rhythm and energy to it which matches the soundtrack, in which Plan B (he directs the film under his real name, Ben Drew) raps the backstory of each character as they appear. Speeded up footage and cameraphone pictures sometimes push it into music video territory, but when it really hits its stride, the dreamy, doomy twilight of grimy pubs and train stations juxtaposed with the bright lights of Canary Wharf and the shining PFI follies built for the Olympics seem to capture east London as it really is, a place where grandiose regeneration schemes have little effect on the actual lives of the inhabitants. It’s nice, too, to see the sedate-looking terraced streets of east London contrasted with post-war council estates, giving the film a distinctively London feel. The soundtrack also contributes, with bursts of rap music evoking the feeling of bass-pumping cars passing down the street. At one point, punk poet John Cooper Clarke turns up in a beautiful cameo, croakily reciting a poem about ‘The plight of young fellows’ as we follow the story of drug dealer Aaron (played by Riz Ahmed).

At other times, however, the tone is less evocative, and the feel of the movie is oddly inconsistent. Sometimes it’s like The Wire; sometimes it’s more like a Guy Ritchie gangster film, and a middle section reprises the plot and queasy tension of the Dardenne brothers’ L’Enfant with a generous dash of Eastenders. Elsewhere Drew has named his influences – The Godfather, La Haine, Pulp Fiction – and there’s a rather sweet nod to Taxi Driver when Aaron stumbles across a gun: posing with it in the mirror, he mumbles in a pastiche of toughness “What did you say about my mum?”

Ahmed is great as Aaron, giving a performance that remains understatedly sympathetic both in the earlier, darker scenes and in the second half as his character develops into the hero of the piece. The acting is generally terrific, especially considering that many of the actors are beginners and unknowns. In particular, Keef Coggins is entertainingly low key as drug dealer Kirby, and Eloise Smyth gives a touching performance as spiky, sharp-but-vulnerable teenage hanger-on Jody.

It’s the plotting which is the weakness of the movie. Drew has a brave stab at a non-linear plot of interwoven character lines, but what starts out as a collection of fairly bleak, grimly realist vignettes wobbles around the middle into something considerably softer and more redemptive, with Aaron ending the film in a minicab, heading away from his previous life on to – we assume – better things. But although the timescale feels fairly compressed, the interweaving of the different plots strands doesn’t quite work and it quickly becomes confusing.

In one plotline, for example, a young black kid goes from trying to buy twenty quid’s worth of weed, to joining a gang, to shooting a drug dealer and being shot himself in retribution. It’s not clear what the time period of the narrative is: some of the character arcs work within what seems to be a 24 or 48-hour time period, others don’t, and this confusion has a knock-on effect on the characterisation: is Jody really so quick to recover from the shock of seeing her friend shot dead in front of her, or has more time elapsed than you think?

Where a more skilled filmmaker might have been able to distil the plot down to the crucial moments of dramatic tension, Drew instead resorts – as novice storytellers, both in fiction and in film, often do – to trying to create tension by piling events on events, brutality on brutality. At the point where a crack whore suspected of stealing a mobile phone is made to repay her debt by being hawked round the kebab shop owners of east London at twenty quid a time, the story felt Dickensian in the worst way: as if the film was lifting a curtain on the lives of the poor for the benefit of the privileged, but deliberately ramping up the awfulness to enable the audience to feel suitably horrified – or titillated. That said, it’s sometimes difficult to identify precisely where a storyline has been forced beyond the bounds of possibility; the story about the young kid who is given a gun and told to shoot a man he has never met struck me as exaggerated, but it does have some similarity with the case in Clapton, Hackney, of 15-year-old Santre Gayle, who shot Gulistan Subasi in March 2010 having been given a gun and £200 to do so.

The trouble is that having ramped up the horror, Drew finds himself with no way to end the story but to turn to what even he describes as a fairy tale ending: the good characters are taken in by Aaron’s social worker, the bad guys are swept up, arrested, and presumably taken off the streets for good by the police. It’s a conservative (small c) solution, but it seems to me that Drew’s less interested in offering solutions than in shining a light on a part of society generally overlooked. It’s an honest effort, and his understanding of the realities of life in Forest Gate – the places kids hang out, the language – as well as his goodwill towards the young people whose life experiences he is drawing on make this a hugely more interesting film than, say, the dreary pantomime of Guy Ritchie’s East End gangster films.

But he ignores those people in Forest Gate who are precisely like himself: the ones who move on the fringes, who have other options, who become neither dealers nor junkies. In trying to give his evocation of Forest Gate life dramatic impact, he sometimes slips beyond realism to a point where he reinforces the media hysteria about urban youth which – in the song ill Manors, which plays out over the closing credits – he subverts and caricatures (Keep on believing what you read in the papers/Council house kids, scum of the earth). The feeling of the film, the look of it, the sound, even (most of) the characters you encounter are real, are Forest Gate. But poverty in Forest Gate has a much more mundane existence than that depicted here.

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One thought on “Let’s all go on an urban safari

  1. Great piece Jo and you have made me curious enough to go and see this. As you say, it is interesting that it’s Ben Drew who takes this task on.

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