My Brother the Devil is the debut feature film by Sally El Hosaini, and tells the story of two brothers living in the gang-ruled, drug-afflicted estates of Hackney. The younger of two, Mo, (played by the amateur actor Fady Elsyad) idolises his drug-dealing older brother Rashid (James Floyd), but as he gets drawn more into his world, he realises and uncovers truths which causes schisms between them, their friends and the gang-land hierarchy. The films main thread revolves around a gangland turf-war, with the two brothers struggling for an identity in the escalating violence.
Played out in the majority in the deprived estates of Hackney Wick, My Brother the Devil explores the realities of sibling kinship; couched in an inter-laced, complex cultural milieu, which mixes strict generational Islamic traditions, turf war mentalities, Alpha-male domination, coming-of-age realisations and queer culture. The narrative of the film stutters at first, primarily due to the inherent realism of the language. The fast-paced urban slang takes time to sink in (if unfamiliar in the first instance), but once it does, it contributes richly to the innate realism of the film. In this instance, it bares a striking resemblance to The Wire, in that the payoff of working hard to immerse yourself in the lingo is a richer experience of the characters. However, as the piece progresses, the story ebbs and flows handsomely which some short scenes establishing the relationship tensions interjected into longer plot-based exchanges, some of which portray impressive levels of realistic action given the meagre budget. One particular scene involving a dog is particularly enthralling.
However, one of the most impressive features of the film is the beautiful, almost liminal cinematography throughout. Some scenes have a lucid, almost dream-like quality to them aided by a pitch-perfect musical score. The visual portrayal of the estates in My Brother the Devil is also striking, with lingering shots of tower blocks which seems to show off their beauty rather than highlighting their grittiness (which could have been the default option given the narrative of the film). The use of ˜in-between’ spaces (such as rooftops, stairwells, old dilapidated playgrounds) adds to the overall realism of the piece, with much of the dialogue of the film taking place in these areas. The two main roles are played almost flawlessly; with Elsyad particularly impressive given it is his first role. The change from innocent, starry-eyed schoolboy content with writing rap lyrics, to drug-taking, beer-swigging gang member is highly articulate. And mirroring that, Floyd’s depiction of Rashid’s conflicting identities, while not perfect, draws you into an intense emotional engagement.
My Brother the Devil‘s premise is far from original “ the subtle plot twists are in once sense predictable “ and it is perhaps a bit too long. Some of the characters are unnecessary too and over-complicate the plot and in some scenes leaves you wondering whom indeed they are talking about. In some sense this adds to the realistic qualities, but sometimes realism needs to take a back seat to story telling.
Despite these flaws, My Brother the Devil is immensely watchable, with some excellent performances. The visuals of the film are alone worthy of the cinematic experience (one wonder’s if it would play out as sumptuously on television), and the tensions that build steadily throughout have you rooting for the main characters and feeling for them which is what any quality piece does. And if is what El Hosaini achieved in her first feature film, I am eagerly awaiting her next.