D: Idris Elba / 101m
Cast: Aml Ameen, Shantol Jackson, Stephen Graham, Fraser James, Sheldon Shepherd, Everaldo Creary, Calvin Demba, Naomi Ackie
As a child in Jamaica, Dennis Campbell aka “D” (Ameen), saw his father shot and killed by another child, Clancy, who was never apprehended. His father was trying to broker peace between two rival gangsters, and in the wake of his father’s death, Dennis was taken under the wing of one of them, King Fox (Shepherd). Ten years later, Dennis works for King Fox, but his quick temper keeps getting him into trouble. To keep him from getting into any further trouble, Fox sends Dennis to London, to deliver a package to a local associate of Fox’s called Rico (Graham). But Dennis isn’t impressed by Rico’s mock-Jamaican phrasing and attitude, and decides to keep the package (which contains cocaine) for himself and find another distributor. He’s able to reconnect with his wife, Yvonne (Jackson), and young daughter, and he also becomes involved with a group of friends who want to break into the world of sound system competitions and become DJs. It’s when he discovers that Clancy is now working for Rico that Dennis’s actions begin to cause real problems for him, and for those around him…
Victor Headley’s debut novel, from which this is adapted, was a publishing sensation when it was first released in 1992, and it paved the way for a wave of new black fiction that continues today. Now regarded as something of a “cult” novel, Headley’s debut has been given the big screen treatment, and as perhaps could have been expected, Idris Elba’s debut feature treats the source material with obvious respect and admiration. Beginning in the Seventies in Jamaica, the screenplay by Brock Norman Brock and Martin Stellman shows a time in Dennis’s life when his father was a true source of optimism and inspiration in the face of gang warfare. His father’s death acts as a trigger for the pessimism and violent expression that Dennis displays as a young man, and the script, plus Elba’s confident direction, rightly keeps Dennis away from the path of redemption. Instead, he follows his own vengeful path, even when it means harm being caused to others. The script shows how much his anger has consumed him, and despite the assurances he gives Yvonne of changing things around and leading a better life, these are just empty words that not even he believes.
With such an anti-hero as a lead character, Yardie has something of a distance about it, thanks to Dennis being someone we wouldn’t want to know in real life, and also because he’s choosing a criminal lifestyle when he could do so much more – and has the opportunity to do so. Elba wisely exploits those moments of rare self-reflection that bring Dennis up short, but dramatically they’re not as convincing as they should be as Dennis soon returns to his criminal activities or thirst for revenge. Despite a very good performance by Ameen, Dennis remains a character on too rigid a journey to make him sympathetic, and unfortunately none of the supporting characters are fleshed out enough to make a difference. What we’re left with is a movie that’s well constructed by Elba and his cast and crew, but which fails to connect with its audience on an emotional level. So much of the material, and the narrative, plays out in a connect the dots fashion, leaving little room for spontaneity or surprises, that the movie often feels rote. Perhaps Elba and co have been too respectful and admiring of Headley’s novel, as this adaptation lacks the consistent passion and energy needed to make it work as well as it should.
Rating: 7/10 – though London in the Eighties is recreated with considerable skill, and given vibrant expression by DoP John Conroy (along with recurring visual motifs aplenty), Yardie can’t overcome the lack of attention given to the material and how to make it more gripping; a terrific soundtrack (naturally) adds to the sense of time and place, and though it’s not entirely successful, Elba shows enough talent behind the camera that if he were to give up his day job, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all.