British urban drama is fast becoming a crowded genre. It seems that every couple of months there’s a movie released depicting issues of drug abuse, violence and poverty in the council estates of one of London’s many recession hit suburbs. Well, in UK cinemas that is. Not many make it out of the country, and in fairness probably few deserve to. Sally El Hosaini’s debut feature is playing at the London Film Festival and will get a limited UK cinematic release in November, and it would be nice if it got the opportunity to travel further because it’s one of the better examples of the genre.
"My Brother the Devil" deals with many of those aforementioned well-worn themes, but it does so better than most. This story takes place on the streets of Hackney. Rashid (James Floyd) and his younger brother Mo (Fady Elsayed) live with their traditional Egyptian parents, but Rashid is involved with the local gangs, and Mo, who idolizes his older brother, desperately wants to follow in his footsteps. Understandably Rash wants his brother to make more of his life, and after his best friend is murdered by a rival gang member Rash is determined to get them both out of the cycle of crime and destruction.
And of course he does, because in these stories someone always does. Thankfully things are a little bit more complex this time around.
That’s the backdrop, but writer-director El Hosaini is less interested in preaching about social issues than she is in exploring her two central characters. The brothers are both trying to find themselves, but they go about doing so in vastly different ways. Rash is trying to get as far away from his former life as possible with the death of his friend having hit him particularly hard. He befriends local photographer Sayyid (competently played by Said Taghmaoui – his casting apparently inspired by imagining where his “La Haine” character might be now) who also offers Rash employment and prompts him to reassess almost all aspects of his life. This only pushes Mo further away from Rash, who can’t understand why his brother no longer wants to be a big shot on the estate. Confused and disillusioned by the person he had always aspired to be like, Mo goes behind Rash’s back and joins his old gang.
But the brothers are both keeping secrets from one another, and when Mo discovers Rash’s secret (which is too spoilerific to reveal here) he’s so ashamed that instead of telling his friends what he has really found out, instead he tells them that Rash is a terrorist. There are shades of Joe Wright’s “Atonement” (no, really) in the final act when Mo’s failure to comprehend events he’s not yet mature enough to understand land both him and Rash in serious danger, and that acts as the catalyst for the "urban," the "crime" and the "drama" to all come crashing back together for a frenzied finale.
It’s exactly where you’d expect this kind of story to go – and perhaps that’s a good thing in terms of the film’s commercial potential – yet it still engages thanks to the two leads. James Floyd in particular is fantastic. He delivers a real star-making turn. Floyd has popped up before in “Tormented,” “The Infidel,” and played the lead in last year’s “Everywhere and Nowhere,” but this feels like a real step up. His performance reminded this writer of Riz Ahmed in “Shifty” – and that is intended as the very highest of praise – and if casting directors have any sense then Floyd has the potential to be every bit as successful and respected as Ahmed has become. It probably doesn’t harm his chances that he’s handsome and charismatic, nor that his face has been plastered all across London for the last month on all of the film festival’s marketing material. Give young Fady Elsayed a few more years and a bit more acting experience and hopefully we’ll be saying the same about his career prospects.
Yet while the highest of praise is reserved for the actors, the film as a whole impresses too. One could argue that originality is not its strong suit, but it puts together a lot of things we’ve seen before into a package that perhaps we haven’t, and makes them feel fresh and exciting. The characters are compelling, the stakes are high throughout, and some of the avenues that El Hosaini chooses to explore offer up a refreshing change of pace. Regardless, there’s no shame in covering old ground if it’s executed as well as this. [B+]