I honestly didn’t know what to expect from Plan B as a director, when approaching this film. ill Manors was gathering considerable buzz within the British film scene as damning critique of the current state of affairs within Britain. Many saw it as a possible explanation to last summer’s riots and or at least an insider’s view of the tabloid friendly term ‘Broken Britain’.
No Pressure then Ben Drew, no pressure.
Ultimately, I decided the best way to approach this film is on its own artistic and cinematic merit and try not to be swayed by how Plan B has positioned himself as the chin stroking broadsheet’s ‘voice of the streets’. Surprisingly, the film still holds together but only to a degree.
ill Manors opens with obligatory shots of London (now including new icons like the Olympic stadium etc). The gritty mood is set quite early on. Fast paced camera work is employed in a not-so-subtle homage to Guy Ritchie films to introduce one of the many characters that will be involved in the narrative, with a sure footed start to the film giving an immediately engaging sense of urgency.
The first 30 minutes or so are as strong an opening as you will see this year. It’s the slightly indulgent remaining 90 minutes where the story starts to lose some steam. We are immediately thrust into the amoral world of crack dealers and prostitutes, which is extremely interesting as a dimension but ultimately gets jarring as we discover that is the totality of the world he has created for us.
In this multi threaded narrative, we are introduced to a plethora of characters all from the East London area of Forrest Gate. Their stories are told to us in flashbacks by Plan B ‘rapping’ to us about it, accompanied by a little visual presentation. Some people have called this new and creative, but this made it impossible to truly care for any of the characters based on their backgrounds.
In addition, we are not allowed to see well rounded three dimensional characters but simply quickly assembled back stories that all basically say the same thing – a history of tragedy. The little girl who became the hooker, the child who grows up in foster care becomes a drug dealer, another child grows up to be a racist. They all share the same story in a way – they did not grow up in a strong family unit. This seems to be a big factor in Plan B’s script. The two darkest characters are drug dealers called Chris [Lee Allen] and Ed [Ed Skein] and they are both foster children, with what feels like a simplistic explanation.
Which brings us to where this film falters the most. The sheer darkness and brutality of it all. East London is portrayed as a trove of crack heads, dealers and hookers. The only semi-relatable character we have is Aaron, who is portrayed by the excellent Riz Ahmed. Even in his case, we only like him because he is not as bad as the other characters, and Riz Ahmed is inherently likeable.
Other than that, the story is loaded by tragedy after tragedy and they all happen to be connected. For a supposed social crusader like Plan B, painting the darkest possible picture intertwined with the unlikeliest scenarios seems to be counterproductive and takes away from the power of the message.
You stop buying into the possibility of this story [even though, from what I understand, most are based on true stories] when there is one tragedy too many. The scenes where Ed and Aaron pimp out a prostitute to several men to pay for Ed’s mobile phone is haunting. It is when her character returns in another capacity that it gets cartoony.
It is one of those movies where every bad thing that could happen, happens. To compound this, the end is so contrived and is such a cop out. By the time we get to the obligatory redemption scene, we simply don’t care. This is possibly because we just never get enough time to care for any of the characters and the sheer amount of over-egged stories stuffed in.
Plan B has been hailed as something he clearly isn’t. He is no doubt an ambitious and young talent. However, burdening him with the role of a modern polemicist is rather unfair and possibly why he fails here. He wanted to make a movie that the characters in the movie would watch, and still be layered enough for mainstream movie going public to appreciate – perhaps a task too much for him. Drew is clearly a fan of, and ultimately influences by, certain types of populist movies such as Pulp Fiction, Snatch, La Haine and Boyz N The Hood. There is even a “you looking at me?” scene which was lifted from more from La Haine and Taxi Driver. It didn’t work.
It’s difficult to criticise what Plan B is trying to do. You feel like he genuinely wants to be the voice of a generation in a positive way. The problem is that he fails; not due to lack of talent, but lack of focus. I feel if this film had expanded on any of the multi threaded stories into a singular narrative, we would have had a much richer story. Instead we have flimsy and unlikeable characters that we stop investing in far before the credits start rolling. Instead of trying to be a PT Anderson or a Guy Ritchie, he should focus on being Ben Drew. I really believe it’s good enough.
Cert (UK): 18
Runtime: 121 mins
Director: Ben Drew
Cast: Anouska Mond, Ed Skrein, Mem Ferda, Natalie Press, Nathalie Press, Riz Ahmed