Idris Elba (The Wire, Molly’s Game) describes his directorial debut Yardie as “a snapshot” of his youth growing up in Hackney/Camden, London in the late 70s and early 80s. In many ways it’s admirable that he’s resisted the urge to tell a love letter to his youth within his first film, one filled with the common tropes so many indie darlings are littered with. However, what’s presented in Yardie often feels like a lesser story, one that’s directed towards the life of a dime-a-dozen crime thriller, albeit one with an escalated sense of morality and just a smidgeon more of passion.
Dennis ‘D’ Campbell (Aml Ameen) is a young boy in Kingston caught living a passive life between the war of two different gangs which tears up his homeland. When his older brother and guardian Jerry Dread (Everaldo Creary) attempts to bolster a ceasefire under the guise of a live-DJ performance, he’s shot dead by one of D’s school classmates from the audience. Devastated from the loss of his idol, gang leader and music producer King Fox (Sheldon Shepherd) takes him under his wing, moulding D into the soldier his brother swore against, and sends him to London in order to take care of a cocaine shipment.
The Jamaican cultural influence on the film and its characters plays a huge part in Yardie’s identity, and Elba tries to dwell incredibly hard on the community of Kingston throughout the film’s opening. The DJ set organised by Jerry has a genuine smoothness to it, feeling simultaneously realistic and too good to be true. Creary plays Dread as a saint, and it’s a disappointment that he’s removed so early into the film as he’s one of the strongest components of the (admittedly large) ensemble. Jerry is the optimist we dream of having, and for that of course he has to die, whilst Sheldon Shepherd’s King Fox is likewise immediately likable and swaggers about the film oozing sleaze. In comparison, Ameen struggles as D. Our first interaction with the character is through a frustratingly bland voiceover, undercutting any emotionality the film’s Kingston-set opening could have. It’s only when this setting changes to London that both Ameen and Elba come into their own.
Immediately we’re shown the contrast with freshly-wet pavements and the yellow lights of the streetlamps, Elba’s walked these streets many a time and it’s here where his direction feels at home. He even works up the confidence to try some bold angles and movements, such as strapping his camera to a car door as it opens or sticking to the ceiling of an underground music club. These moments are often hit and miss and are purely experimental, but it’s this experimentation that shows at least some creativity is present in a film that often feels sorely lacking in that department. For no matter how hard the cast and director try (and believe me, they do) Yardie instead continuously plays out like the majority of British gangster movies it’s trying so hard to steer away from.
D meets up with the cocaine contact, a crime-boss and fellow music-producer Rico (Stephen Graham, Snatch) and immediately the two clash, leading D to run off with the product, putting a mark on his head for the rest of the film. Graham is a revelation here, completely off brand as fellow yardie Rico, effortlessly slipping into the mannerisms of both his Jamaican and British ancestry with ease and providing the ticking time bomb that D needs to rise up against. His faux-passion for music antagonises both D and Elba (the director is famously known for his intense interest in music as well as his acting roles) to see through his corruption, both in the booming underground music scene of London in 1983 and in the drugs trade. Whenever the film shifts focus to the atmosphere of said scene it thrives, Ameen is at home behind the microphone as the hot lights burn up behind him. Once again Elba’s able to successfully communicate the claustrophobic intensity of the club-like atmosphere in front of a camera to the point where you can feel the sweat dripping from each of the characters.
In such a male-dominated film, D’s ‘true Jamaican girl’ Yvonne (brilliant newcomer Shantol Jackson) who had moved to London four years earlier to take care of their newborn daughter Vanessa comes as a saving grace. Not only does Jackson counter Ameen’s roguish behaviour, it humanises him, and the moments between him and Vanessa are honest and touching even if uninspired. The chemistry between the actors is obviously there, and the family archetype would have provided the film with a stronger backbone. Once D also finds out that the man who shot his brother dead a decade ago is also living in London, he embarks on a quest for revenge, an action that clashes with the character’s motivations throughout the rest of the film. Any one of these plot threads could have sustained the film’s runtime, yet instead Yardie insists on briefly touching upon each of them and not allowing any to have emotional weight. For a story of retribution, Elba seems to try and tell the story with only brief shots of violence. This in theory could have worked wonders, acting as the catalyst for the rest of the film’s tension, yet instead it’s often awkward and misplaced. The script by Brock Norman Brock and Martin Stellman flip-flops through different tones like there’s no tomorrow, and the film ends up as a grey mishmash of misplaced cultural representation and British gangster films, something along the lines of Noel Clarke’s Kidulthood trilogy but with a higher sense of self-worth.
There’s an important story that needs to be told somewhere inside Yardie, and I still believe Idris Elba has the talent and capability to tell it. But sadly the script offers nothing beyond what the narrative demands and fails to pick up any of the character and emotion that Victor Headley’s 1992 novel was known for. It lacks energy in many scenes and instead of offering up an engrossing tale of morality it often feels like a checklist trying to appeal to as small an audience as possible.
On the other hand though, the film’s presentation and soundtrack (hand-picked by Elba himself) showcases a smooth blend of reggae, soul and dancehall cuts that could give Baz Luhrmann a run for his money. If the right script was sent his way, Idris Elba could very well be behind the pinnacle of musician biopics, or could even take a Shane Meadows route and offer up experiences from Camden in a This is England-style piece. Until then though, it’s just another ‘what if’ in a film that at many points feels like an entire ocean of them.