What if your beloved brother got involved in something terrible? The idea of what exactly ‘something terrible’ is to a British teen is shocking and unexpected but depressingly real in My Brother the Devil. This is extremely brave British film making from a bright new talent. Sally El Hosaini has written and directed a compelling, realistic drama that covers a range of issues from gangs and drugs to sexuality in contemporary London.
Two brothers from an Egyptian family living in Hackney find their close relationship threatened by a number of compelling challenges. Death, love, drugs and violence are all parts of everyday life that invade and consume their streets, causing various problems for the brothers. After a tragic event for older brother Rashid (James Floyd) causes him to reflect on his actions, he attempts to set a better example for younger brother Mo (Fady Elsayed). Cutting loose from his drug dealing crew and setting out to find another path becomes increasingly dangerous as Rashid meets and befriends a French photographer, Sayyid (Saïd Taghmaoui).
My Brother the Devil is fuelled by heartfelt and achingly real performances from its young cast of mostly unknowns. The script has a couple of moments where it drifts away from being completely beleivable but even those moments are convincingly sold by the committed cast. James Floyd and Fady Elsayed as the two leads are revelations. Their brothers are at the heart of the story and their relationship is consistently believable through all the challenges it faces. Backed up by poetic cinematography that lets light shine into the dreariest of places and a supporting cast of solidly acted occasional stereotypes, Floyd and Elsayed stand out from their surroundings with powerful performances nearing perfection.
The cinematography by David Raedeker makes some of the least attractive parts of London light up beautifully. Focus is pulled from the towering blocks to the human faces at the centre of the story, finding beauty in the characters and their drab environments. The real locations are shot with such rich, visual flair that London becomes a wonderful mix of urban decay and development juxtaposed with attractive compositions of lights in the darkness. The touching moment where Rashid realises he hasn’t been to a beautiful spot that showcases the Millenium Dome in its night lit glory brings home the limitations of the lifestyle he has chosen so far and also highlights the directors eye for locations.
El Hosaini makes repeated reference to the powerful mid-90’s French drama La Haine. This goes beyond the casting of Saïd Taghmaoui who in the earlier film played a youth with no sign of a future and extends to the opening credits and their documentary style black and white stills of defiant youths. The British youths from diverse backgrounds wandering the estates of London have much in common with their French counterparts in La Haine. Facing unemployment, the lure of drug dealing and the threat of gun and knife crime, it’s a bleak but clear portrait of disenfranchised youth who lack options and look for easy answers to their problematic situations. Sayyid could be Taghmaoui’s character from La Haine all grown up, battle scarred and going straight after relocating to England. His Sayyid becomes a point of hope in the story when Rashid is struck by tragedy and searching for a means to live differently and provide a positive role model for his younger brother Mo. It is in the complex and genuinely shocking twist in the relationship between Sayyid and Rashid that My Brother the Devil makes its boldest move. Sure to jolt the target audience out of their comfort zone, it is a risky but rewarding turn for the story to take, tackling an issue unexpected of the guns and gangs genre.
The film may tackle a wealth of issues but the juggling of so many potent threads might leave some a little under cooked. Some aspects of the story feel slightly forced and too spontaneous but the characters depth and dialogue convinces despite the more sensational elements. Touching on issues of ethnicity, sexuality, gun and knife crime, poverty and unemployment will lead this to be a favourite text for media and film studies students to pour over with its endlessly complex representations but the film still succeeds as purely entertaining drama.
The way the most sensitive and potentially sensational issue and plot point is dealt with forces audiences to consider their own prejudices. The reaction of Mo to one pivotal revelation is all too believable and sad. The film posits a world where a young man would be more likely to admit to his brother being a terrorist than the other option he is faced with telling people. It is a scary and sad look at masculinity and prejudice that exists in many sections of society.
My Brother the Devil is a far more vital and powerful film than the countless other films coming out about London’s less fortunate areas. The guns, gangs and geezers give way to something far more powerful and optimistic than anything in the grittier, flashier narrative style and far more sensationalist subject matter of Ill Manors. Sally El Hosaini is an exciting new writing and directing talent. Her cast give gripping performances and her script raises a wealth of important and relevant issues that combine to make this a must-see British drama from an outstanding new voice.
MY BROTHER THE DEVIL is released in cinemas from 9th November