Brother – BFI London Film Festival 2022

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writer and Director: Clement Virgo

Surely one of the main contenders in the 2022 BFI London Film Festival’s Official Competition is Brother, which looks at two siblings growing up in Scarborough, Toronto, in the 1990s and the early 2000s . Based on David Chariandy’s novel, it’s a glowering story of racism and childhood, and shot so beautifully it often takes one’s breath away.

Set across three time periods, Clement Virgo’s film begins in the middle as teenage Michael is persuaded by his elder brother Francis to join him in climbing a pylon that overlooks the city. Francis says that the ascent, dangerous and difficult, will help Michael grow in confidence, something that, compared to his elder brother, he lacks. The boys start scaling the pylon.

But in the future, Francis is not there. Michael lives with his mother in the apartment that now never sees sunlight. His mother is mute with grief, and doesn’t react at all when Michael ushers in old school-friend Aisha into the flat. Aisha is caught up in her own sorrows, but is shocked at what she sees.

Before we can make sense of the situation we are taken back in time to when Michael and Francis are young boys, alone in the apartment over night when their mother works the late shift in the hospital. One evening they watch the news to see footage of two black men shooting dead a shopkeeper. The boys are scared when they hear that the two men are still at large. Francis jams a chair underneath the handle of the front door, his eyes wide with fear. He then returns to join his brother on the sofa, but as the camera slowly pulls away, Francis suddenly looks at the door. The scene could be lifted straight out of an art-house horror.

Virgo makes even the most mundane rituals of life sing. At one point, the boys’ mother seems to be at the gates of heaven, light streaming behind her and the group of people she stands with. It comes as a surprise to discover that she is merely waiting for a bus. There is also amazement in the valley that lies just across the road from the social housing estate in which the family lives. Young Michael’s face is full of unbridled awe as he watches a heron take off from the lake.

As the boys become teenagers, childhood wonder is replaced with fear and suspicion. A (white) teacher rebukes Francis in front of his classmates and (white) policemen raid Desiree’s, a barbershop with DJ decks that is the focus of the neighbourhood’s Jamaican diaspora. Tellingly, we never see the faces of white authority. Here whiteness is not to be trusted and for good reason.

As the older Michael, Lamar Johnson gives what must become an award-winning performance. Michael must learn to extinguish his hopes in the face of grief and brutality. Michael’s flaw is that he exhibits his emotions too easily, but as the film continues he slowly supresses his feelings to the extent that it’s tough to gauge his mood. Lamar’s broken man is unsettlingly authentic.

British actor Aaron Pierre is elder brother Francis who has already learnt how to act in public. As he drops out of school, the barriers go up around him and he refuses to show any emotion, entangled in society’s idea of what it means to be a man. But soon, the secrets pile up at his feet and, when he realises that he can no longer protect those he loves, his simmering rage is palpable in Pierre’s performance.

There’s excellent work too from Kiana Madeira as Aisha who resolves to fix Michael, from Lovell Adams-Gray as DJ Jelly, and from Marsha Stephanie Blake who plays the boys’ troubled mother. Director Virgo gets the best out of his cast when he films them thinking silently whether that be Michael looking up from his homework to see his mother and brother arguing, or Francis heartbroken when his quest to find his father doesn’t go to plan.

Todor Kobakov’s haunting score, along with tracks like Nina Simone’s Ne Me Quitte Pas, add so much to Brother that it’s hard to shake off the melancholy once the film has ended. At one scene in the film’s early stages Michael is reading Oedipus Rex. Brother is a tragedy of similar proportions.

Brothers is screening at the BFI London Film Festival 2022.

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