I often find it difficult to work out my feelings about the seemingly endless parade of British urban dramas. To me these supposedly gritty, realistic looks at urban youth are often rather unconvincing. They seem like a fantasy based on reality – a version of inner city life that’s been mashed through gangster film cliché and social realist poverty porn to create something that’s miserable enough that people think it feel true, even though it isn’t. However I’m also aware that growing up on a farm limits my knowledge of the realities of destitute, gangland, housing estate life.
Even so, I can’t help but feel many urban dramas fail because they don’t present us with characters who feel like real people. Instead they’re ciphers of street slang and gang life cliché, while the audience is hit with a sledgehammer stamped ‘this is how it really is’, while not being terribly convincing that it truly represents the deprivations of inner city life.
My Brother The Devil comes to DVD after winning awards at Sundance, the London Film Festival, the BIFAs and Evening Standard Film Awards, as well as having a 100% score on RottenTomatoes. The reason it’s been so acclaimed becomes clear early on, which is that it presents a relatively familiar tale but anchors it with two brothers who are real, relatable people, with understandable emotions and motivations. It’s a movie that highlights where so many other urban drama have gone wrong, as the world of urban thrillers so often seems like a destitute fairy tale, until you present it through the eyes of real people. It’s also unlike some other films in that it presents its characters as participants in their own lives – even if they’re pushed in particular directions by circumstance – whereas many other movies simply want everyone poor to look like a victim of their lives with no control over their own decisions.
Teenager Mo (Fady Elsayed) idolises his older brother Rashid (James Floyd) and is rather in awe of the life of small-time drug dealing and gangs that his big bro is part of. Keen to follow in Rashid’s footsteps he’s given a small drug drop to do, which goes wrong when Mo runs into members of a rival gang. Soon the situation escalates into deadly violence.
Rashid is shocked as the reality of his small-time crime life hits home. He also starts to have realisations about his sexuality, which result in him looking for ways to extricate himself from gang-life – something his blinkered, selfish friends aren’t going to make easy. He’s also keen to stop Mo descending deeper into a world that seems quite attractive to young eyes (especially when most other options simply offer drudgery). However when Mo discover the truth about Rashid’s new life, a wedge is driven between the brothers.
My Brother The Devil is smart enough to spend time at the beginning setting up the lives of the brothers, who are the children of Egyptian immigrants. Their home life feels true, with a genuine family dynamic that helps inform everything that happens afterwards. You can also understand exactly why Rashid would have gotten involved in drugs and gangs. Instead of the reverse fairy tale version of poverty seen in many movies, here it really does seem like one of the few ways to feel a sense of power and control, as well as to earn decent cash. Much of the plot has admittedly been dealt with before, but My Brother The Devil does it far better than most by creating real characters and an emotional connection, as well as set it in a universe that feels inhabited by actual people.
The film delves into numerous themes, from friendship and sibling rivalry to the experience of second generation immigrants and homophobia. While not all these are 100% successful, they raise plenty of questions that engage your brain and get you involved in the story. Even the title raises questions, asking you to wonder which brother is the devil, cleverly playing with your ideas about this as the movie progresses.
It’s certainl;y not the first movie to look at coming to terms with your sexuality in a deprived environment, but it’s one of the most engaging, understanding the cultural, social and familial ramifications, even if it’s only a subplot to the main action.
Those who’ve enjoyed other urban thrillers will certainly find much to engage with here, as it doesn’t shy away from the violence and drama of gang life. It will also appeal to those who enjoy well-written character dramas, as the relationship between the brothers is fascinating even apart from the knives and guns of the inner cities. It also certainly helps that James Floyd and Fady Elsayed give excellent performances, anchoring an absorbing and surprisingly moving film.
One word of caution though, there is a fair amount of street slang that can be tough for outsiders to understand. It’s not so bad you won’t know what’s going on, but just be aware that you may not catch every word.
Overall Verdict: A powerful, moving look at family, homophobia, and trying to find a worthwhile life in the inner cities, which succeeds thanks to strong performances, a perceptive script, excellent cinematography and direction that prizes real people over urban thriller cliché.
Special Features: Audio Commentary With Director Sally El Hosaini, Deleted Scenes
Reviewer: Tim Isaac