My Brother The Devil
It sounds like a shlock horror movie. A first glance of the publicity material seems to suggest a typical urban British gangster flick; a connotation only lent support by Saïd Taghmaoui being the biggest name in the credits; a name best known for a star turn in French crime thriller La Haine. Yet despite the slight mis-marketing, the numerous international awards Sally El Hosaini’s directorial debut has already picked up suggests My Brother The Devil is anything but formulaic.
The film begins by quickly establishing a kind of grey-area idyll; Rashid (James Floyd) and Mo (Fady Elsayed with his silver screen debut) obviously dote on each other despite keeping up their macho pretense, and the pair enjoy a close (if somewhat claustrophobic looking) relationship with their Egyptian parents, buoyed by Rash’s lucrative drug dealing and Mo’s A-grade in English. It’s surprisingly upbeat; until Rash delivers drugs to the mysterious, refined Sayyid (Taghmaoui) who clearly presents - not a threat, more an alternative lifestyle. As Mo later proclaims, “he’s not bling, he’s got classy swagger”. [MILD SPOILER WARNING] After the needless and tragic death of one of Rash’s DMG ('Drugs, Money, Guns...blud') gang-mates at the hands of rival Demon whilst encroaching on their turf, Rash decides it’s all gotten a little out of hand and seeks guidance from his new, more experienced and wordly-wise acquaintance, and as a result starts to neglect his previous allegiances to tragic consequences. [END SPOILERS]
What follows is an increasingly heart-rending spiral into a hopeless situation made all the more so by it being so plausible; the beats in the fractured relationship of the two brothers as they’re caught between their real and imagined (read: gang) families, each other, and one or two outside interests are pitch-perfect and possessed of some real warmth at times that ensures no matter how poor their lifestyle choices, Rashid and Mo are both thoroughly relatable and, actually, likable. These are good kids trying vainly to make the best of a bad situation and thus the plot, even during its weakest, middle third, is always anchored in a very personal struggle.
The film is authentic too, almost incoherently so at times. That is; El Hosaini has clearly lived similar streets and worked closely with Aymen Hamdouchi (who plays Rashid’s more unhinged, veteran gang-mate Repo) throughout production to ensure thorough accuracy regarding slang and inter-gang relationships; it‘s a brave decision to have so much of the dialogue fly by in rapid, dense East London slang, but it’s mirrored closely and cleverly by the on-screen action so that your understanding is always instinctive.
This sense of realism is almost objective, lending proceedings a natural ebb and flow without pausing to clumsily judge; much in the same way as Mary Harron’s detached treatment of the depravity of American Psycho allows the audience to make up their own minds, and most likely understand the complexities of mixed-background London Estate culture without imposing a moral binary on it.
The camera work however, is heavily subjective, and is an integral part of the puzzle as to how My Brother The Devil can at times wax so lyrical. Indeed, David Raedeker picked up a gong for best cinematography at Cannes for his work; rich with close ups, considered and contemplative framing, and frequent nods to the natural world that both injects colour into the drab greyscale of the estate itself and hints at a wider world; one that Rashid and Mo both seem tantalizingly close to escaping into.
Of course, it’s all icing on the cake, and would be meaningless but for the chemistry between Rash and Mo, and a raft of stellar individual performances. James Floyd (who picked up best actor at the Milan film festival) is totally believable as both senior gang member, loyal son (we see him slipping money into his mother’s purse) and fiercely protective older brother by combining physicality with subtlety; helped no end by the tactful and witty script. Young blood Fady who took the ‘Best Newcomer’ award at the BFI London Film Festival recently makes the best of some great lines and underplays the young-brotherly angst admirably, slipping only once or twice into tantrum mode, but overall putting in a dedicated and mature performance. The large supporting cast do the film proud too; with special mentions going to Saïd Taghmaoui’s surprisingly tender photographer with a dark past, Aymen Hamdouchi and Letitia Wright (who plays Aisha, Mo’s new confidante). It’s rare to find such a well rounded, multi-faceted and tender cast in any film of a similar budget, let alone a directorial debut that stays true to its Hackney roots.
My Brother The Devil deserves huge credit for not only turning the gritty British estate drama on its head (helped by a twist I hesitate to reveal even in spoiler tags) but doing so in a well-paced, entertaining, and authentic manner without sacrificing human warmth or descending into maudlin introspection. That it marks a first for so many of the cast and crew shouldn’t matter, but nevertheless it’s impressive that it’s absolutely not to its detriment, and if anything, has given the film a more irreverent, free-wheeling life of its own, free from the genre baggage a more veteran director might have brought along. Memorable, gripping and taut with intriguing subtexts; just don’t let the trailer, poster or name put you off.