BFI London Film Festival: MY BROTHER THE DEVIL
Gritty council estate movies are probably the most done to death sub-genre going in contemporary British cinema, and with a few notable exceptions they mostly completely fail to gain any kind of actually progressive or critical perspective on the milieux they observe, instead simply reaffirming and cementing the tired stereotypes they draw on in the first place (Yeah, I’m looking at you Kidulthood). So if I synopsise My Brother the Devil – impressionable 14 year old Mo gets lured into a life of violently territorial drug-dealing on a Hackney estate, just as his elder brother Rashid, a high-flyer in the local gang, is trying to escape it – I’m not going to blame you for being dismissive.
Except that writer and director Sally El Hosaini’s first film happens to be the perfect tonic to its hackneyed antecedents. The intelligent, tightly wound plot is genuinely gripping, taking an interesting turn somewhere around the half way point with a revelation about Rashid that’s unexpected but fully justified by the way it plays into the narrative and builds toward a thrilling and redemptive climax for the two brothers. The pacing and execution, too, is spot on; El Hosaini deftly handles moments of both emotional poignancy and gut-wrenching drama, while also offering an even-handed and convincing portrait of the camaraderie and fraternalism of London gang culture, but also its brutal politics.
Indeed, the fact that the director has achieved such maturity and poise with her debut film is frankly astonishing, and it’s surely already a strong contender for the First-Feature Competition that it’s playing in at the LFF. But she does get a lot of help from her leads. Complete newcomer Fady Elsayed shows a lot of promise as Mo, the susceptible teenager undergoing a violent loss of innocence. And James Floyd is magnetic as Rashid: empathetic and charismatic, but also the kind of guy whose eyes you wouldn’t want to meet on a nightbus (even if Aymen Hamdouchi’s Repo outdoes him in the nasty fucker stakes). D.o.P David Raedaker, meanwhile, won a cinematography award at Sundance earlier this year and it’s easy to see why. The film’s artful portrayal of East London’s tower block landscape is reminiscent of Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, except that the angular framings and dominating concrete take on a more deliberate, claustrophobic impression, for which the film is all the more interesting.
It’s got to be said that My Brother the Devil isn’t going to change the world – perhaps wisely, El Hosaini doesn’t attempt to reach for some over-arching critique of the larger society that creates the ghettos in which it’s set, besides avowing the feelings of futility that besets their inhabitants. But what the film does achieve is a sophisticated interrogation of masculinity to go with its whirlwind plot. And what’s more, it’s got real heart.
Screening times here. My brother the Devil is released on 9th November.