D’s childhood is marked with a loss that he’s trying to reckon with throughout his adolescence – but the need for avenging it follows him from Kingston to London as he crosses paths with a local crime lord and tries to reconcile with his family. Based on a 1992 cult novel by Victor Headley, Yardie explores the places it switches between with incredible thoroughness, creating a captivating atmosphere that compensates for the film’s flaws.
It’s the first time for Idris Elba in the director’s seat, and he picked a pretty exciting story for his first feature: Yardie (despite multiple meanings it evokes, its etymology lies in the patois word yard meaning home, and it’s a slang word for a fellow Jamaican in the community) is based on the Nineties bestseller that gained a cult status shortly after it was released. Given the accolades, it must have been as daunting to pick it up as it was exciting, but the multitalented Elba managed to find the magnetic moments and settings in his rendition of the story.
We follow Dennis, D for short, on his path from Kingston to London as he tries to answer the question his brother once asked him: will he become one of the righteous or one of the damned? The current of his life throws him around from one to the other as he tries to figure it out; he’s been traumatised by the losses he had to endure and the cruelty that surrounds him. As the war rages between two gangs in Kingston, the schoolboy witnesses violence on a daily basis. But when his peace-making brother Jerry Dread organises an improvised party to stop the war in the ghetto and becomes another victim of the bloodshed, the need to retaliate grows on the disillusioned boy. Fast forward a few years, and twentysomething D finds himself running errands for one of the city’s mob bosses. After an attack on a man who he mistakes for the killer of his brother, his boss sends him off to London to silence the situation, giving him a task of delivering drugs to his connection Rico. But the things get complicated from the start: he manages to infuriate the criminal on the very first day, putting his teenage sweetheart Yvonne and daughter Vanessa in danger.
The director’s smashing success is undoubtedly conveying the atmosphere of the environment – he’s got an eye for observation, and this particular trait of his sets the bar pretty high when it comes to the overall result. His characters sound authentic: they speak patois almost exclusively, with other accents from various London communities (i.e. Turkish) also used in the film. His attention to detail is reflected into the perfect set design: small things, such as a plate Yvonne keeps sheltered in the cupboard or the look of the event posters, as well as entire interiors (or exteriors, as proven by the vibrant market set) and spectacular costumes evoke the atmosphere of the era and take us right into the Seventies. There are knowing scenes that hint at the painful history of the community: when D goes through the border checks at the airport, the camera bounces off the customs officer name tag as he sends him off into the city using his full name. And the music sets the tone for the entire film – the soundtrack consists of handpicked favourites, such as Lord Creator’s Kingston Town, Love Me Forever by Carlton and the Shoes or the tunes from Yellowman and Grace Jones. Bringing the rich history of Jamaican music to the fore, the songs collection plays like a heartfelt love letter to it and serves as a heartbeat to the story. Elba manages to transform the grey streets of Hackney and Harringay into spaces where cultures overlap, and where many Jamaicans found their home, nurturing the colourful culture under the grey skies of London. Beyond that, it’s the stage for complicated power dynamics that fits into its environment and defines it deeply.
In many ways, the film borrows from City of God, particularly when it comes to the weighty voiceover use and storytelling techniques. A broad understanding of the gangster film genre also factors into some of the strongest, most powerful scenes in the film. And despite being set in different eras, it’s also similar for the recent City of Tiny Lights when it comes to recreating and populating the London neighbourhoods with personal stories, falling short in very similar aspects.
As a first-time director, Elba is still trying to find his footing when it comes to the visual side of the film – Yardie is driven by its strong narrative first and foremost: sometimes too heavy with voiceover, pushing ahead at a breakneck pace, with an exciting story that comes to an unexpected halt a handful of times. The film opens with a huge set piece, a rapidly paced sequence of events that switches into a visually beautiful impromptu party arranged by Jerry Dread as a plea for peace between the gangs; there’s something magical and insanely atmospheric about the twinkling colourful lights, the shadows that wash over the crowd and the rhythm of the music in the scene, so our heartbreak when it finishes tragically sets us on the same page with the protagonist. Although there’s a handful of these along the way and the director has a flair for pairing music with visuals – scenes in a Hackney club nail it again – as the audience, we often wish for some of the shots to be pushed a little bit further, and for editing to be more generous.
However, the film fares far better when it comes to the characterisation thanks to well-written characters and superb casting, even if there’s a handful of things to untangle around the way. Aml Ameen delivers a great performance, with the right balance of toughness, charisma and sweetness that helps him to create a character that is difficult to part with. He’s tormented, forever haunted by his brother who returns in vivid visions, and driven by the need for revenge, but softened by the love he feels for his wife and daughter. Shantol Jackson’s heroine swings between decisiveness and softness, creating a fierce woman with unstoppable energy, a delight to watch. Stephen Graham creates Rico as a larger-than-life persona that feels monstrous from the first time we see him on the big screen: he nails the caricatural element of his character as well as vicious cruelty he lives by. Sheldon Shepherd as King Fox steals the scenes he appears in, ravelling in the aura of silent respect and firmness – he doesn’t even have to say a word to evoke any of these feelings in the viewer.
Although Yardie falls short when it comes to its editing or visual side and has a few pacing issues, it’s a promising start for Idris Elba as a director that sets a steady path for his future projects. A solid effort for an actor who takes the directing reins for the first time, it confirms his flair for creating environments that pull the audience in, and using music to heighten the emotional stakes – hopefully, we’ll see something new from him very soon.
Yardie opens in the UK on the 31st of August 2018.
- Yardie (2018)