Slick, glossy, visually exciting, Ryan Bonder’s The Brother is an attention-grabbing thriller.
Arms and the Manby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
The Brother is a story of cross and double cross where dialogue is sparse and little is explained – withheld, rather – until the final reveal. It’s set in the new-look London of the Christmas market on the South Bank, the open perspectives of the redesigned St Pancras station, and the Embankment and the Thames glowing with coloured lights in the night-time darkness. Brian Johnson’s photography is in love with contemporary lofts with exposed brickwork, where high-ceilinged penthouses look out on a rosy sunset softening the panorama of the cityscape of the new developments in east London.
Adam (Tygh Runyan, Versailles) is a Canadian, leading a quiet life working as a cloakroom attendant at the Tate Gallery and making paper-butterfly mobiles in his spare time. It’s clear that there is more to him than this, and that there is something in his past he is trying to suppress. He meets and falls in love with delicate former ballet dancer Claire (Noémie Merlant) who is French and deaf – she was deafened by a terrorist explosion, a theme that’s picked up later on. Adam is trying to move on with his life, but after his Asperger’s-suffering, piano-playing brother Eli (Jed Rees, Deadpool) turns up out of the blue with rumours about the imminent return of their father Jack (Anthony Head, soon to be seen in A Streetcat Named Bob), everything changes as Adam gets drawn back into his father’s criminal world.
When Jack reappears after having been in prison in Colombia, he’s suffering from the early stages of dementia, and visual editing is used to suggest his episodes of confusion. He seems also to be an arms dealer with secrets to hide from people who are pursuing him, though he can’t remember why, and he is trying to find a mysterious ‘Henry’ – all hampered by his memory lapses and recurring disorientation. Belinda Stewart-Wilson (Ripper Street) is a mysterious femme fatale, linked with two generations of the family, both Adam and his father’s brother Reuben.
What distinguishes this from other British crime movies is how different its milieu is. The film’s characters are not East End gangsters but a relatively prosperous family – with two contrasting generations of brothers – criminals certainly, though it takes a while to find out what kind, living a middle-class lifestyle in upmarket locations, even though Anthony Head does essay a semi-London accent. There’s piano playing, ballet, art, sex, but there’s also deliberate graphic violence filmed in slow motion, all the more unexpected given the context.
Nobody is who you think they are is a constant theme. As events unfold, the moral landscape constantly shifts. People act in ways that you don’t expect and the surprise denouement reveals secrets with more than one twist. It’s an exciting film, though somewhat confused at times and some of the themes could do with more exposition. It has an idiosyncratic soundtrack of Northern Soul and classical piano, and it creates a cold and alienating London that has emptiness at its heart. It will be very interesting to see what Bonder does next. Expect the unexpected.
The Brother is released in the UK on 16 September 2016.