Photograph: Guy Godfree/Curzon
  • Film
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3 out of 5 stars

Two great performances animate this social-realist drama about race, loss and family


Time Out says

There’s a gravitas to Canadian filmmaker Clement Virgo’s handsome yet patchy drama about racially-charged desperation in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough. Told episodically through the eyes of adult Michael (Lamar Johnson), whose flashbacks slowly reveal why protective older brother, Francis (Aaron Pierre), is no longer around, Brother is adapted from David Chariandy’s 2017 prize-winning novel about the sons of Caribbean immigrants and their all-elusive better life. 

The film chops between three different timelines, showing Michael and Francis as young kids grappling with an absent father and news reports of bloodshed close to the apartment block where they live with a barely present, overworked mother, Ruth (Marsha Stephanie Blake).

The meat of the story unfolds across the brothers’ precarious teen years, as their contrasting personalities are formed – Michael, timid; Francis, confrontational – under the twin shadows of encroaching gang violence and humiliating police surveillance (sirens are heard so regularly that they might as well be part of the sound design). In the final timeline, a decade later, Michael and a catatonic Ruth navigate loss. 

Although he retains the sweep of the novel, Virgo struggles to replicate its observational texture and the tension is undone by an atmospheric vagueness, full of pregnant pauses that only stretch out the run-time. The influence of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is felt in a gliding camera that strives to find low-lit beauty in muted spaces, while Todor Kobakov’s mournful string-heavy score owes a debt to Jenkins’ composer Nicholas Britell (the Emmy-award winning icon behind the Succession theme). 

Aaron Pierre has a raw, wounded masculinity in the mode of Brando

Brother also borrows a Jenkins actor in The Underground Railroad’s Pierre whose layered, charismatic performance holds two identities: the real Francis, and Michael’s larger-than-life memory of him. Pierre and Johnson are the film’s biggest assets, with their bond existing with the wordless urgency of people who share the same stresses. 

Like his contemporary, Lady Macbeth’s Cosmo Jarvis, Pierre has a raw, wounded masculinity in the mode of Brando. His deep voice and muscular magnetism belies the simmering pain of a force-of-nature whose pursuit of a different life in the music industry seems like a mirage. In a pivotal scene he says, almost to himself: ‘We’re just dreaming. There’s no way forward. There’s no way out. We’re just dreaming.’  It’s like watching a spirit breaking.

In UK cinemas Sept 15.

Cast and crew

  • Director:Clement Virgo
  • Screenwriter:Clement Virgo
  • Cast:
    • Marsha Stephanie Blake
    • Aaron Pierre
    • Lamar Johnson
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