Back in 2008, Ben Drew [Plan B] used his own cash to make ‘Michelle’, a hybrid short film, part music video/part drama, which tells the story of a crack whore who gets pimped out to pay a drug dealer for the theft of his mobile phone. The episode turns up again as a pivotal sequence in his debut feature, ‘iLL Manors’. The setting remains the same, but evident that Drew’s filmmaking skills have developed in the interim.
In ‘Michelle’, he’s trying too hard, from the edgy hand-held camera, the noisy actors, to the intrusive and repetitive presence of Drew himself spitting out the rap/narrative. Two years on, he has developed the confidence to hold back, keep still, let the editing keep things sharp, including some nice crossings of the so-called line. His ear for dialogue has matured. I can’t testify to the authenticity of phrases like “off-key” and “it’s not the one”, but they sound less forced. The actors aren’t fighting for attention with the quantity, volume, and vulgarity of their (probably) improvised dialogue. Riz Ahmed will have been a factor here. A charismatic and generous actor, he brings out the best in his inexperienced co-star, Ed Skrein. You get a relationship, a sense that Ahmed’s character has always been the more cautious of the two, but has benefited from his friend’s lack of scruples.
‘iLL Manors’ may push the rapper/narrator out of the frame and onto the soundtrack, but the film still seems led by the music and in these sequences it retains some of the artistic limitations of music video:
~ The visuals illustrate the lyrics. They correspond with what we’re being told. When we’re given some back story, we get back story visuals (the usual half-glimpsed clips of faded home videos). When the rap describes a scene in the present, the scene plays out as described. There is an upside to these sequences as they spare us the full weight of some all-too-familiar histrionics: Chris’ gun-point interrogation of murder witness Terry, for example.
~ The visuals sell the product. They show off. Extra cash was pumped into the project during post-production* and, as a result, we get some second unit urban landscapes and indiscriminate access to the full box of visual tricks: fast and slow-motion, time-lapse, freeze-frame and split-screen, even animation – the tiny figures of architectural models are seen perpetrating indecent and criminal acts. All very cool, but they add nothing of substance.
To its credit the film doesn’t posture or play-act like so many other British crime dramas. It may not be half as “real” as Drew seems to think it is, but it is a sincere film – Drew is telling it straight – and this is what makes it worthwhile.
This, and the music.
*’iLL Manors’ was made as part of Film London’s Microwave scheme, but post-production was financed through a deal with Revolver Entertainment. Its budget thereby significantly exceeded the oft-quoted £100000 associated with the scheme. It’s not yet apparent whether Film London intends to venture further along the path of commissioning projects with demonstrable co-financing potential.