Published Jun 27, 2013Early in Sally El Hosaini's ambitious, yet surprisingly restrained and detailed debut, My Brother the Devil, gangland territory in London's East end is established in both a familial and geographic capacity. Rashid (James Floyd) and younger brother Mo (Fady Elsayed), both children of an immigrant bus driver, vacillate between time at home with their parents and hanging out with a local gang that runs drugs in their low (or no) income council apartments.
Though Rashid, the ersatz leader of the gang, doesn't encourage his brother's involvement, agreeing with his parents that focused education can help him avoid his older brother's lifestyle, he still allows him to hang around the criminal element, even doing a quick weed drop. This run, which gives us an idea of the rigidity of gang territory and the intense class system isolation these boys have amidst a dense populous, also establishes a conflict between rival dealers when Mo takes a shortcut and winds up being held at knifepoint.
While this threat of violence is credible, escalating throughout the film, with Rashid even going so far as to plot out a murder, El Hosaini isn't particularly interested in documenting sensationalist grit. She's far more focused on establishing a realistic, unembellished criminal underworld, where playing videogames and developing relationships are just as significant as dealing drugs and planning vengeance. These brothers aren't single-minded thugs so much as they're confused outsiders, forced to the periphery of society where financial success is more often related to crime than legitimacy.
Once the puffed up posturing and sheer thrill of instant fiscal gratification wear off and people are left bleeding in the streets, Rashid's inner-conflicts and contradictions reach their boiling point. Tasked to shoot an antagonist his brother's age — literally wearing the shoes he stole from Mo in one of the more laboured visual juxtapositions — he quickly realizes the partially suicidal implications of his trajectory, which forces the change and inner-awareness necessary to sell his prompt switch in values and identity performance.
Mo, still trapped in the cycle of rebellion against a system that has ultimately failed the lower class, resents Rashid's decision to take a "straight" job with politically conscious photographer Sayyid (Saïd Taghmaoui). It's a betrayal to their established gang family — one that (seemingly) offers the validation and tenuous bond his blood family can't provide — and to his ersatz parental role. Worse is that the relationship between Rashid and Sayyid, which could propel a narrative unto itself, takes a turn that reveals the types of prejudices and arbitrary shifts in allegiance inherent in a tumultuous criminal bond, forcing Mo to face the loss of innocence associated with coming-of-age.
While this paralleling of storylines is a little too obvious and contrived in documenting the disappointing process of maturation and confronting the limitations of self, El Hosaini manages to make it work. She doesn't romanticize either journey so much as she documents it warts and all, having an understanding of how social performance and fear of rejection ultimately impede upon the underlying need for connections too twee to verbalize.
The main issue with My Brother the Devil is that her muscular direction, while polished, consistent and visually engrossing, is almost contrary to a message that values, but never actually embraces, the importance of emotional honesty. An expressionist eye occasionally pops up, particularly in heightened emotional moments where repressed sexuality or fear arise.
However, these hints at moving and emotional (some might say indulgent) cinema are quickly pushed away in favour of the very coldness that the characters within the film are trying to overcome, which makes for an intriguing and presumably unintentional contradiction. (108)