Don’t be down on Yardie: Idris Elba makes a promising debut

Visually impressive and with a cracking soundtrack, Yardie makes an impact, even if the plot's a touch thin...

What were you expecting from Idris Elba’s first feature film in the director’s seat? Violence, certainly. Emotional turmoil, probably. Troubling moral quandaries, undoubtedly.

True to form, Yardie has all of the above in spadefuls. It was released earlier this week to mixed reviews, with some critics calling it an ‘impressive directorial debut’, while others saying it’s an ‘uneven disappointment’. Now, it’s time for us to add in our tuppence worth, so here goes nothing.

Based on the cult 1993 novel of the same name by Victor Headley, Yardie is the story of ‘D’ (first Antwayne Eccleston, then Aml Ameen), a young Jamaican boy who witnesses the murder of his Rastafarian brother (Everaldo Creary) by a gang member as he tries to negotiate a peace settlement in Jamaica’s capital, Kingston. The plot follows D as he grows up under the protection of gang leader King Fox (the silky smooth Sheldon Shepherd), and is sent to London with a parcel of cocaine strapped to his leg, as penance for a botched attempt to avenge his brother’s death. Once in England, he crosses East End drug lord Rico (the ever-impressive Stephen Graham), setting into motion a sequence of events that will test whether D will follow the ‘righteous’ path, or the ‘damned’.

Visually, it’s impressive. The luscious green of the Jamaican hills where D grows up contrast with the teeming, dusty streets of Kingston. Together, they provide a vibrant counterpart to the grey, grimy streets 0f 1980s London, and Hackney council estates that provide the backdrop to the tale’s violent climax. The acting, too, is top notch, with well-deserved accolades earned by Ameen, for his portrayal of the bewildered, betrayed and vengeful D, and Shepherd, for his treacherous, charming King Fox. The soundtrack is also pitch perfect, with an evocative selection of tracks that speak of the burgeoning reggae scene in 1980s London. See below for the full listing. 

But, it’s the rough cutting of Yardie that lets Elba’s directorial debut down, especially at the film’s final scenes, where a more dexterous hand was needed. Random characters suddenly appear at key moments, and make you feel that some important scenes were perhaps left on the cutting room floor. D’s moral progression feels under-baked and the cathartic moment that the violence calls for never fully emerges, making for an unsatisfying denouement. Above all, D never stops feeling bewildered and betrayed. In the end, he choses neither the righteous path nor the damned, but tries to navigate a muddy middle road. Whether it’d get him to his redemption is uncertain – and the film doesn’t seem all that sure, either.

But as Elba’s first feature film, Yardie is certainly promising. He evidently knows what it takes to get great performances out of his fellow actors, and how to set a scene to precision. The film looks great, and carries you along in its sheer exuberance, and passion for the subject at hand – and it’s certainly one to see. If nothing else, it marks a significant moment in the career of one of the UK’s hardest-hitting actors. If, next time, he can just piece his story together with a tad more dexterity, he’ll be onto a sure-fire blockbuster.