One of the highlights of last month’s London Film Festival the debut feature from writer/director Sally El Hosaini is a heart pounding take on the conflicts and confines inherent in the multi-cultural gangland of London’s estates. My Brother the Devil blooms with confidence, a tacit avoidance of cliché and an unexpected, full-blooded heart at its centre.
Two brothers exist together on a London housing estate eroding from years of neglect and the effects of the brutal gangs, protective of their territory and themselves, which patrol the area. Fady Elsayed is Mo, the impressionable younger brother of James Floyd’s Rashid whose dreams of a better life away from the estate creep through the hard front he wears while out on the estate. With Mo about to leave school, with decisions to make and a number of hopeless futures in front of him the reluctance of his brother weighs heavily on them both. Events then occur which send them both hurtling towards an unexpected path.
El Hosani’s hand is remarkably well measured here. Running a story through the mean streets of a London estate is difficult, not least because the road is well-worn and riddled with cliches, but also because the language, the motives, the ebb and flow of aggression and retribution has become prevalent to the point of dulling its impact. What My Brother the Devil has in its favour are two wonderful central performances (most of the characters are well drawn and admirably acted it has to be said) and a realism which, when the narrative takes its unexpected leaps we’re too caught up emotionally to notice the seams.
The violence, and threat of violence pervades the film, exploding twice and it has a palpable force. The film’s moral centre unexpectedly shifts halfway through and we shift with it, aligning ourselves against the devil in each brother and it is to the film’s credit that we can’t see the endgame despite the familiarity of the setting. Floyd and Elsayed are a powerful combination, and the scenes between them are incredibly engaging. Mo’s descent into the inevitable is hard to watch and it is the forces which act upon him and propel the narrative which show the film at its most engaging. His brother’s determination that he not be lost in the labyrinthine estates for the rest of his short life and the gang member’s selfish insistence that he become one of them, Mo’s vulnerability is keenly felt and all credit has to go to Elsayed for giving life to such a strong character.
In the busy swirl of London urban dramas which fly in and out of our cinemas this thoughtful and powerful film stands above the crowd. Two excellent lead actors uncover the emotion in El Hosani’s story and she is well deserving of her LFF awards success as she has crafted a memorable and engaging film.
My Brother the Devil is out today.