My Brother the Devil, the hugely impressive first feature from British-Egyptian director Sally El Hosaini, applies the duality beloved of 1930s crime melodramas – two brothers, set on divergent paths – to a housing estate in latter-day East London. Lad-about-town Rashid (James Floyd), son to loving Egyptian parents, finds himself caught between entering the workforce and going legit, and loyalty to a local heavy for whom he sometimes deals dope and coke. Meanwhile, Rash’s younger, brighter sibling Mo (Fady Elsayed) is himself at a crossroads, weighing up whether to strike out for college or to stay local and while away the afternoons playing Grand Theft Auto, waiting for real crime to get involved with.
Upon entering this world, most directors choose to close the image down, emphasising how claustrophobic and forbidding certain estates can be: even Andrea Arnold’s superior Fish Tank shot in the TV-ready Academy ratio. By contrast, El Hosaini – working with the talented cinematographer David Raedeker – opens her film up at every juncture, spotting the greenery that persists, even flourishes, at the fringes of this particular milieu, and the possibilities the central pair might yet enjoy beyond the limitations of their immediate environment. Clichés are dodged; new and surprising perspectives are found.
Said Taghmaoui, from Mathieu Kassovitz’s urban landmark La Haine, plays Sayyid, a photographer who instructs Rashid to see his world with new eyes, telling him “it’s about where you put the frame” – and My Brother the Devil indirectly poses searching questions about the morality of camera placement, eschewing the empty sensationalism of Noel Clarke’s Kidulthood franchise. Do you ghettoise your characters, presenting them as a species with their own exotic lingo and skintones – in effect, caging them up like zoo animals for wider public enjoyment – or do you strive to see the bigger picture, the life extending beyond the image? El Hosaini picks the latter route, granting her characters the room to breathe, think, even change.
It’s Rashid and Mo who box themselves in here, not the film, which constantly offers these brothers a helping hand or way out: even the pokiest of Raedeker’s set-ups keeps a door, a window, a ladder in shot as a graspable idea of escape. One shot of Rashid gazing over the river to the looming O2 Arena (formerly the Millennium Dome) underlines the fact these characters aren’t so far away from mainstream society, though clearly there are divides that need bridging before they can get there. Elevated by lively, wholly convincing supporting performances – and, in particular, by Floyd and Elsayed’s thoughtful, charismatic lead turns – My Brother the Devil counts as the most critical and constructive, not to mention most engrossing, cinematic contribution to the inner-city debate since Saul Dibb’s Bullet Boy.
(MovieMail, November 2012)
My Brother the Devil screens on BBC1 tonight at 12.10am.