Some classic gangster-movie tropes are taken for a ride in helmer Sally El Hosaini’s “My Brother the Devil.” An energetic and imaginative tale of siblings at a criminal crossroads and a street movie that is imaginatively, even poetically, shot, the pic nonetheless remains rooted in the turmoil of an immigrant British demimonde. Young, gay and/or artfilm-oriented auds could all respond to El Hosiani’s take on combustible youth, a film that so artfully refuses to surrender to convention.
The son of Egyptian immigrants who’ve settled in the Hackney section of London, Mo (Fady Elsayed) is the sensitive younger brother of Rashid (James Floyd), a boxer and general badass who engages in drug running and small-bore criminality in order to send Mo to college. When Mo is given a relatively simple drug transaction to execute, he gets robbed and his sneakers are stolen; Rashid intends to exact retribution, but is also more convinced than ever that the guileless Mo has to be kept out of the business.
But Mo wants in, because he idolizes Rashid, and the sense one gets is that “My Brother the Devil” is headed into 1930s Warner Bros. territory, a landscape where older brothers commit crimes and sacrifice themselves to keep younger brothers on the straight and narrow. But El Hosaini is doing nothing of the kind. A confrontation with a rival gang leaves Rashid’s best friend dead and vengeance in the air, but at the moment the gun is raised and the intended victims are as good as shot, the film heads in another direction entirely.
It’s Rashid who finds a way out of all this, via Sayyid (Said Taghmaoui), a photographer and intellectual who instigates Rashid’s political awakening, but also kisses him on the mouth. Rashid is appalled, agitated, violent and confused, but after a period of reflection, he realizes he wants Sayyid, too. Unfortunately, Mo glimpses them in a compromising position, which sends him spinning out of control.
Much of what happens in “My Brother the Devil” works precisely because it’s set within a tradition-bound immigrant culture, despite the drug use and crime. Mo’s astonishment and horror at his brother’s homosexuality wouldn’t work as well among a more Westernized, liberal set of characters, but as a parable about outlier cultures, the film works just fine. There’s a slightly old-hat feeling to the posturing of Rashid’s crew, the squalid sexuality, the drug use and the identity crises, but the look of the film and the brothers’ dynamic feel fresh, as does El Hosaini’s ability to tinker with structure.
Assisted by d.p. David Raedeker’s agile and aesthetically fine-tuned camera, the film puts an original visual spin on low-end London; very little of the framing is what one expects, and the p.o.v. occasionally borders on the hallucinatory. Production values, especially the interplay between the images and Stuart Earl’s score, are superb.