An extremely promising debut feature from Sally El Hosaini who dares to breath new life into the stock inner-city gang violence film.
An excited critical groundswell has accompanied the release of Sally El Hosaini's salty and sinuous urban potboiler, My Brother the Devil. And it's very easy to see why, as this assured and provocative debut feature is clearly made by someone with great technical aptitude and who would clearly not be content just peddling out another crass, moralistic youth movie.
Yet for all its early promise of innovation, it ends up a naggingly familiar chronicle of tit-for-tat East London gang violence which is all whisked up to its natural, blood-flecked boiling point.
The title alludes to James Floyd's Rash, a cheeky, polo-shirt sporting petty crim with Egyptian roots who is happy to toe the wideboy line, but only if his upstart younger brother, Mo (Fady Elsayed), does his best to keep his mitts clean. And even though the violence crescendos early in a thrilling territorial street scuffle with rival hood, Demon, it's not until much later in the film that the true nature of the title comes out.
Clearly indebted to Mathieu Kassovitz's 1995 gang opus, La Haine, right down to the casting of French-Moroccan actor Saïd Taghmaoui who essentially reprises his role from that film, Hosaini has an admiral knack for teasing out fluid and naturalistic ensemble scenes, and she also has a great ear for poetic street vernacular. Her film carries with it a bracing authenticity.
It's a shame, then, that it sits firmly in the shadow of similar 'issues'-based genre offerings, notably Saul Dibb's Bullet Boy and Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank, the latter offering a genuinely subversive riff on the high-rise milieu.
The problem with the film is that Hosaini appears to have channelled all her energy into moulding Rash and Mo's characters, leaving the entire supporting cast to linger in the middle-distance as forgettable, single-note cyphers. And while the director deserves props for at least trying to deal with complex social issues and potentially combustible situations, one can't help but feel that The Big Reveal comes too late in the game for it to be dealt with in a particularly detailed or judicious manner.
It's feels more that Hosaini simply favoured a big narrative surprise instead of putting her money where her mouth was and starting the film at the point of the reveal – making the twist the subject of the film. The way in which the film is split so cleanly down the middle makes it difficult to deduce its thematic priorities.
Still, My Brother the Devil is a promising, intelligent and (from its dedication in the closing credits) highly personal piece of work, with the two lead actors bringing a hard-bitten charisma to their roles which makes it easier to sympathise with their fraught, anguished trials. Hosaini is very much one to watch.
The hype is big, but should we believe it?
Yes and no. Hosaini's flawed gangland saga still has much to admire.
This didn't quite work for us, despite oodles of great work up on the screen.