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Review - This tale of youth is deep and disturbing

Ill Manors had some weighty expectations to live up to. Rapper, platinum-selling soul singer and now film maker and social commentator Plan B stoked the fires in March with the release of the title track to his directorial debut.

Hailed in The Guardian as "the first great mainstream British protest song in years", and compared to Marvin Gaye's What's Going On by a Labour shadow minister, the song Ill Manors was an instant success with right-on England. It was that rare thing: an articulate commentary on last summer's urban uprisings from someone who actually seemed to understand the rioters' motives.

If early rave reviews are anything to go by, the film of the same name will be admired across the political spectrum, with right-wingers like Toby Young, Fraser Nelson and Edwina Currie all impressed. Meanwhile, Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder of the Kids Company charity, wants to deliver a copy to David Cameron so he can see "another bit of your country that you don't talk about".

So what would greet the prime minister if he pressed play? The opening track's line "Ill Manors, where dark shit goes on at night" is not a bad representation of what follows.

Initial impressions are that this is just another gangster flick, with opening shots that wouldn't look out of a place in Guy Ritchie or Quentin Tarantino production. And those expecting some further direct explanation or depiction of last year's riots will be disappointed - the film was devised before they took place.

Instead we are presented with characters who, to begin with, feel as though they could work equally well anywhere in the world where drug dealers operate. Boyz n the Hood, British urban youth film Kidulthood and even Goodfellas all come to mind. But Ill Manors gradually develops into something much wider, deeper and more disturbing. Laughs are at a premium and glamour non-existent. When a hero eventually emerges, he is both hugely unlikely and unlikeable. We witness torture, crack dens, stabbings, brutal teenage gang fights, shootings and child murder.

Some scenes are Dickensian in their horror. The second half - which appears to borrow from South African film Tsotsi with a plot about a gangster finding a baby - is particularly grim. Upbringing and broken homes are hinted at for those looking for reasons behind this bleak reality.

A cameo appearance by John Cooper Clarke suggests education might be at fault: the veteran punk poet rhymes about "leaving it up to the school, where the moral climate is hazy and the climate oppressively cool".

But Ill Manors does not offer heavy-handed explanations or easy solutions. It simply portrays a side of modern Britain that most of us are lucky enough not to live in, but many sadly do.

Plan B interview, pages 28-30

Ill Manors, certificate 18, is in cinemas nationwide.

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