With a repertoire that includes experience and innumerable accolades in the fields of acting, music, producing, kickboxing and DJing, you would be forgiven for asking the question “is there anything Idris Elba cannot do?” Well now, in an attempt to add a credible directorial accreditation to his long list of talents, the Luther star presents his debut in the form of British-Jamaican feature-length crime drama Yardie, a film based upon Victor Headley’s 1992 crime novel of the same name. With the immense weight of the book’s literary success – as well as its narrative and historical significance to a vast number of British Jamaicans – the translation of the context into a screen adaptation proves a bold and testing first endeavour in the world of directing for Elba, but a challenge he has outwardly and passionately spoken about rising to.
Opening in 1970s Kingston, Jamaica soaked both in sun and blood, the movie begins with a flood of vibrant colour, music and tropical hues as we see a young pre-teen named Denis (Antwayne Ecclestone) witness the murder of his friend in gang-related crossfire. Kingston is war-torn between two rival groups fighting for control, and when Denis’s brother Jerry (Everaldo Creary) feels the need to take it upon himself to unite the gangs in an improvised peace party, he too falls victim to the price of war.
Six years pass, and with vengeance burning in his heart, Denis – now embodied by Aml Ameen – falls in with the damned instead of the righteous, working for mob boss King Fox (Sheldon Sheppard) and rising to the respected rank of soldier. After an altercation with the man he believes to have been involved with the murder of his brother, Denis is sent to London in an attempt to keep the peace at home and promote the sale of King Fox’s cocaine to his connection Rico (Stephen Graham). Unfortunately, as carrying a brick of cocaine tends to do, Denis is led down a darker, more threatening avenue, causing turmoil in his search for his brother’s killer, whilst also endangering the lives of his lover Yvonne (Shantol Jackson) and daughter Vanessa (Myla-Rae Hutchinson-Dunwell).
In the transposition from book to film, Elba has softened the edges of a raw and sharpened story, making characters such as Denis more palatable to a wider audience and in the process removing some of the grittier dialect that contributes so powerfully to the core of the story. There is very little sense of danger for our protagonist, with an inevitable feeling that everything will be ok in the end and a concluding moral dilemma (accidental or not) that revokes any suggestion of pathos for the character. The plot structure is clunky, with the first act an upbeat Rastafari adventure and the proceeding scenes flowing not with melodic jamming, but more stumbling improvisation, the band unsure which chords to play next. Characters suddenly appear from the shadows with the sole aim of tying up plot points, subtracting any emotional background and connection with the audience, thus nullifying the importance of their pivotal actions.
However, these plot faults occur not for a lack of trying from the talented cast, who execute their roles with honesty, accuracy and precision. Graham proves a scene-stealer as the erratic monstrosity that is Rico, dishing out light sprinklings of appropriately timed humour amidst a fear-mongering performance, and the unquestionable on-screen chemistry between Ameen and Jackson makes for an engaging relationship, presenting a gripping clash of two powerful beings that host different motivations, but the same intentions.
The movie’s soundtrack is also fantastic, featuring a number of popular authentic reggae songs (something that Idris Elba was adamant to incorporate) and John Conroy has done a masterful job on the film’s cinematography, with awe-inspiring aesthetics that burst with colour and excellently reflect the cultural traditions and locations of the period.
You will yourself to love this picture, you really do, but something is missing in the writing of this adapted story. There are a lot of things the film does very right, but the gloss of these is wiped away by the varying pace and unsatisfying final narrative. A film with so much potential that only just falls short, Yardie is by no means a failure, but rather a valiant effort from Elba and his cast members, and certainly a debut for the new director to build upon in the future.
Yardie is released nationwide on 31st August 2018.
Watch the trailer for Yardie here: