Film Review | Yardie

Actor Idris Elba’s directorial debut can certainly talk the talk as it evokes the jive-and-vibe of Jamaican community in 80s London, but that’s sadly just about it

Aml Ameen in Idris Elba’s  directorial debut Yardie
Aml Ameen in Idris Elba’s directorial debut Yardie

Actors-turned-directors are always something of a crap shoot. On the one hand, one could rightly assume that being involved in film production would help one glean some important tips and clues along the way, especially if they were paying attention and are keen to direct in the future. But on the other, acting and directing remain two separate disciplines that are perhaps better kept as such – they use different parts of the brain, and training oneself to make the right judgment calls for either is no small feat.

Well, now that the acclaimed British actor Idris Elba – who made a name for himself on The Wire and was recently hotly tipped to be the first black James Bond – has taken it upon himself to adapt Victor Headley’s 1992 novel Yardie as his debut directorial feature, we have yet another opportunity to see just how well actors who make the leap behind the camera tend to fare.

And despite many rooting for him to do good – Elba is by all accounts a fine actor with a keen eye for what truly matters – it saddens this critic to have to report that the results are a bit muddled at best.

Kicking off in Kingston in the late 70s, Yardie introduces a teenage version of our protagonist Dennis ‘D’ Campbell (to be played by Sense 8’s Aml Ameen) as he witnesses the Jamaican capital being torn apart by gang warfare, even leading to the death of his young sister.

But despite the heady socio-economic surroundings, D’s brother Jerry Dread (Everaldo Creary) is keen to bring peace to the neighbourhood, and music is his weapon of choice. An impromptu block party he organises using little more than his own sound system and great DJ skills appears to do the trick, at first. But just as Jerry is about to broker a truce between gang leaders, he is shot down by what looks to be just another teenager with a gun.

Still reeling from his murder years later, D is trying to make ends meet in Kingston while his wife Yvonne (Shantol Jackson) and daughter Vanessa (Myla-Rae Hutchinson-Dunwell) emigrate to London to start a better life, while D continues to dabble in both music and the criminal underworld. When he catches wind that his brother’s alleged killer has suddenly found himself in London, he gets a chance to hit two birds with one stone – as his erstwhile boss King Fox (Sheldon Shepherd) also needs him to smuggle some cocaine to the Big Smoke. The delivery, however, does not go as planned and soon, D finds himself truly trapped between a rock and a hard place.

In more experienced and capable hands, Yardie would have sung with a folkloric potency – it has the kind of mythic, tragic trajectory one finds in the best narrative songs, especially the reggae tunes that are part-and-parcel of its prevailing milieu. And while Elba – with the help of production designer Damien Creagh and cinematographer John Conroy – marshals a capable enough team that manages to recreate an apposite atmosphere, the narrative – drawn from a script by Brock Norman Brock and Martin Stellman – never quite manages to come together in a convincing way.

Despite the clear importance that the film places on the power of music, Elba doesn’t quite seem to have a handle on rhythm and pacing, as the story just kind of tumbles from one chapter to the next, with characters either outstaying their welcome or being rapidly introduced to paper over a necessary but underdeveloped plot point.

So, what could have been a kind of post-colonial gangster movie – and a true coup in electrifying a bland mainstream with a work both vital and ethnically diverse – falls short of its promise despite its best intentions. But while Elba may not have the directorial chops to handle such potent material as of yet, he is able to spot good material when he sees it. Here’s hoping the lessons learned with Yardie yield to more interesting projects in the future.

The verdict

Boasting a solid conglomeration of elements – from the period-effective soundtrack and production design to some truly heartfelt performances – Idris Elba’s directorial debut remains, sadly, far smaller than the sum of its parts. Lacking both narrative focus and clear-eyed character motivation, Yardie aims for idiosyncrasy but ends up spiraling into little more than a ticking-off of cliches, which is a true shame given the potential on display. Better luck next time, Idris.