Film Review: ‘My Brother The Devil’
'My Brother The Devil', Urban Film: no.167
Words: James McLoughlin
“It’s this film, it’s set on a council estate in Hackney, but it’s really good”. A normal enough sentence, notice that ‘but’ though. A big meaningful ‘but’, a familiar ‘but’, a ‘but’ that reflects a lot.
A genre that is generally and loosely referred to as ‘urban’ has come to define a particular kind of film in Britain. A gritty, no holds barred, unflinching portrayal of young working class inner city lives. That could be and probably is a direct PR quote. This genre has been relatively prolific since the early naughties and has come hand in hand with collective analysis of this generation’s youth. Sprawling urban council estates, far off aspirations, lack of cultural identity, gang politics, limited futures, limited worlds, drugs, not being able to escape your background, guns, near impenetrable slang, dogs getting shot; familiar themes within this genre, overfamiliar themes for the jaded and tired film-going public who are nowadays likely to greet films such as My Brother the Devil, ‘a gritty portrayal of life on a council estate’, with a yawn, or a groan, or a sigh.
That a proportion of the public no longer see films which seek to highlight the lives and issues of today’s disenfranchised youth as interesting or even important is a particularly apt example of a prevalent attitude in modern Britain. No one wants to see how hard it is for these young men and women (mainly men) growing up in our tough inner cities anymore, ‘we get it’, an impatient and detached cynicism that reared it’s ugly head most notably in the reaction to the August 2011 riots. This attitude may be most prolific amongst middle class Conservative leant adults but it would be lazy to say that that’s exclusively where it exists. Just as the word ‘chav’ has seeped into public culture and everyday use, it may now be commonplace to greet the arrival of a new ‘urban’ film with a ‘oh not another one’. The fact that these films have been marginalised in to their own genre is itself quite a pertinent reflection of the general marginalisation of today’s underclass youth (but I’m going to continue to refer to it anyway).
Perhaps its equally telling however that these films are also likely to provoke a groan from those who feel it’s their world being portrayed, who feel there’s more to tell of council estates than drugs, gangs and dogs getting shot. While there was much high praise for Channel 4’s Top Boy (2011), particularly for significantly raising the standard of the genre, there was also still a fair amount of criticism on Twitter and the like for it being another portrayal of an East London council estate as a haven for all and every sort of crime/bad thing. Top Boy was lovingly produced and researched for two years by it’s creator Ronan Bennet so accusations of implausibility ring false but perhaps the problem is that it’s an ‘outsider’s’ view, someone who wishes to see only that that interests them, as opposed to the subtler more everyday human stories. As the director shoots the East London high rise backlight by the setting sun and lays on the gentle ambient score they look for the poetry of the extraordinary as opposed to the poetry of the everyday. Again and again and again.
As ‘insiders’ filmmakers like Noel Clarke and recently Plan B (Ben Drew in muso terms) have also attempted to plunge the viewer in to the world they know first hand. They too highlight the familiar issues and themes, taking a harsher approach, wishing to show audiences the reality by battering them over the head with it. For a while it worked, Clarke’s Kidulthood (2006) becoming something of a cult hit and along with it’s sequel Adulthood (2008) it certainly marks a highpoint for the genre in terms of critical and commercial success (the second even significantly out-grossing the first at the box office). But by now people seem to be bored by whatever approach is taken, the inventive bolshiness of Ill Manors (2012) not having as strong an impact as Plan B aimed for, it’s relatively large press but poor box office performance suggesting people have all but given up on the genre. Tired of the quickly established clichés, with Anuvahood (2011) Adam Deacon boldly tried to satirise the whole genre itself. Whilst not proving a critical or widely commercial success the film tellingly performed well within the demographics it was about and aimed at. Attack The Block (2011) also sought to play with the genre by splicing it with comedy and fantasy, maintaining the all-important social subtext as well. Boasting excellent reviews and box office takings it seemed as if it might breathe new life into the genre but it may be more that the novelty and freshness of the concept combined with the execution itself makes it stand out as a unique film, as opposed to another film in the ‘urban’ cannon.
It would be nice to say, as some sort of conclusion, that ‘My Brother The Devil’ perfectly combats the problems that have come to plague the genre into which it could be categorised, pulling it out of the dead end that weak and familiar stories have lead it into but, well, it maybe only halfway gets there, or at least it halfway gets there. By focusing on the relationship of two brothers it makes the story more personal and being that it follows their separate arcs equally and intimately it becomes more than just a story of one young man’s struggle to escape his environment or an ensemble drama that attempts to address big themes with loud storytelling and little depth. As a drama about two young men from an immigrant family growing up in a Hackney tower block familiar themes are of course explored but they are made secondary to a more personal and human struggle within the two brothers. James Floyd and Fady Elsayed give stand up and clap performances as the two brothers and are well supported by an assured and convincing young cast. Sally El Hosaini directs her first feature confidently if not a little wide eyed, excelling at building tension and springing raw drama upon the audience, and E9 is shot in its full glory by David Raedeker, who has rightly won plaudits and an award already for his cinematography.
With it’s familiar settings and themes My Brother The Devil may not fully win over or win back those who feel tired and/or disinterested with the ‘urban’ genre but it might inject some hope into those who give it time. In a way it could be unfair to group it in the same category as others as it attempts not to be a drama primarily of place or politics but of relationships. ‘Attempts’ might be the key word there though and it perhaps serves as some form of middle ground as it does struggle between being a tight relationship drama and a more sprawling big theme addressing social drama. Overall it makes for an engaging hour and fifty and the sincerity with which it approaches it’s themes, like many films within this ‘urban’ genre, should be appreciated. Its ambition has the potential to inspire a point of change within the genre and consequently on culture in general which has turned sour to the stories of today’s troubled youth. And yeah, a dog does get a bullet.