Set in the violent multiethnic working-class housing projects of East London, My Brother the Devil is about two British-born sons of an immigrant Egyptian bus driver struggling to keep their priorities straight and stay one foot ahead of the law—and death. It bears the familiar fingerprints of well-traveled London underworld pictures by directors like Guy Ritchie and Terence Davies, but there is so much talent on display in writer-director Sally El Hosaini’s debut feature that it would be a mistake to confuse this film with the usual street-gang dramas that have poured out of England in recent years. Already riding the crest of critical praise from film festivals in Berlin, Sundance, Los Angeles and the U.K., it’s far superior to what usually comes out of the British slums in the genre of gangland thrillers.
Living in an underdeveloped part of the city called Hackney, Mo (Fady Elsayed) is a good kid who respects his dad, watches Bollywood movies on the telly to humor his mom, gets good grades in school and seems destined for a better life, which his handsome, independent older brother Rashid (James Floyd) encourages, saving money to send Mo to college. But Rashid can’t escape the lure, or the pitfalls, of his environment, dealing drugs and playing a pivotal role in the illegal activities of a street gang called DMG (Drugs, Money, Guns). After one of his friends is murdered by a rival gang, Rashid begins to see the futility of his lifestyle. A new friendship with a photographer from Paris named Sayyid (Saïd Taghmaoui) further broadens his perspective. Sayyid convinces him there are cultural pursuits he has never experienced. To Mo’s astonishment, the brother he always worshiped suddenly wears a tie, looks for a job and reads Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet—transformations Mo witnesses with mixed emotions. But it’s not until Mo sees Rashid in bed with Sayyid that his own world falls apart. “I’d rather my brother was a terrorist than a homo,” says Mo. As his loyalty diminishes, he moves closer to the life Rashid used to shelter him from. Lonely and sad, he turns to drink and cocaine, and the closer he gets to the thugs and crackheads in Rashid’s old gang, the closer he gets to inevitable tragedy.
Rashid’s conversion to homosexuality is vague and unconvincing. But the direction by Ms. Hosaini, who is herself of Egyptian descent, is sensitive, offering vital contrasts between the family values of the brothers’ Egyptian heritage and the crime-propelled lifestyle they live in outside their home. The actors are all splendid, especially James Floyd, who I predict has a rich career in future films, and the award-winning cinematography by David Raedeker really transports you to a claustrophobic part of London you will never see as a tourist. Already a big hit in the U.K., My Brother the Devil may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s heady stuff for those who like something stronger than Earl Grey.
MY BROTHER THE DEVIL
Running Time 111 minutes
Written and Directed by Sally El Hosaini
Starring James Floyd, Fady Elsayed and Saïd Taghmaoui