Delivering an alternately striking and ominous vision of gangland London, My Brother the Devil, the directorial debut from British-Egyptian director Sally El Hosaini, is an excellent film. Abstaining from all-encompassing grimness and moroseness in favour of character-driven showcases of potency, it’s rewarding, gripping and the best film of this young year.
The story is made up of familiar parts – ones we’ve seen in other gang-centric entities from HBO’s The Wire to City of God – but El Hosaini’s vision is one of complexity, nuance and moreover is a film that approaches those tropes with distinction. For most audiences My Brother the Devil will provide a unique fusion of cultures. The intermittently bleak aesthetic of London meets the violent, drug-peddling gangs of the projects and more specifically the Arab ethnicities caught in the mix.
At the center of these struggles are two brothers, Rashid (James Floyd) who goes simply by Rash and Mo (first time actor Fady Elsayed). 19-year-old Rash runs with the gang known as DMG (drugs-money-guns) using it chiefly as a means to support his poor family, but for the shy Mo his brother’s involvement and standing makes him an idol and ultimately a beacon towards a more prosperous future. Rash, however, wants his brother as far away from the life as possible and when a violent incident occurs for which be blames himself, he looks to re-examine his life in more ways than one – a decision that seeks to drive a wedge between the siblings.
There is a further level of complexity to My Brother the Devil that I won’t reveal here but it serves both to expertly deepen the character of Rash and examine the nature of his gang affiliates in a fascinating way. These characters swirl in a sea of split-second decisions, racism and unfounded hate and when a secret is uncovered it makes perfect sense the verdicts that are quickly reached. I don’t mean that in a way that the outcome is obvious but rather it’s something that is consummately organic and, ultimately, harrowing for the characters involved.
There are many stars in My Brother the Devil and leading them all is El Hosaini, whose grasp on riveting filmmaking, despite her relative amateur status, is nothing short of astounding. The crisp, clean camerawork gives the world of this film an identity of its own and likewise when she opts to employ hand-held shots and angled perspectives the result is equally arresting. The violence on display is restrained in its scale and frequency but when presented is some of the more disturbing bloodshed you’re ever likely to see. In fact, the scenes where brutality is avoided prove to be just as intense as their gruesome counterparts.
Also nothing short of remarkable are the two leads, particularly the more experienced James Floyd who, while powerfully written by El Hosaini, brings to life the character of Rash and the struggles he faces with the world around him and internally as well. It’s truthfully award-worthy stuff. Newcomer Fady Elsayed is also wonderful playing the weaker of the brothers with vulnerability and reserve but never allowing his character to descend into the realm of snivelling coward. His decisions, while angering at times, feel natural given the situation and his character’s age and lead the way for a satisfying, if racking, catharsis for those concerned.
The faults to be found in My Brother the Devil are scattered and infrequent and thankfully do little to undermine the greater vision on display. The pace hits a bit of an awkward stride leading up to the climax but the conclusion is too perfect to dwell on it. There is also an underdeveloped subplot between Mo and a new girl who moves into his complex. Lastly, there could have been more screen time delegated to further shaping the character of Sayyid (Saïd Taghmaoui) and his past ties to gang life and his growing connection and impact on Rash.
But as a greater entity the film is a triumph of independent filmmaking and pegs El Hosaini as a talent to watch with avid anticipation. A coming-of-age journey with bold, memorable characters and vision and style to spare, My Brother the Devil is periodically slick, always captivating and authentic in ways uncommon to most explorations of violence and loyalty.