Sundance London 2018 Film Review – Yardie (2017)

As well as making a name for himself in front of the camera, Idris Elba has been working on a parallel career behind it.  Starting with producing the likes of Beasts Of No Nation (2015) and 100 Streets (2016), he’s taken the plunge this year and settled himself in to the director’s chair for his first feature, Yardie, based on the novel by Victor Headley.

Set mainly among the Jamaican community in 1980s London, it focuses on D (Aml Ameen), who arrives in the city to lie low after some trouble back on his home island.  As a young boy, he witnessed his brother being shot because of his efforts to heal some of the wounds created by gang warfare in Kingston.  The vision has never left him, so he’s an angry young man with a score to settle, despite being taken under the wing of local don and music producer King Fox (Sheldon Shepherd).  In London, D tracks down former girlfriend, Yvonne (Shantol Jackson) but, more importantly, he discovers that the man who pulled the trigger on his brother is in there as well.

Some nicely created scenes in Jamaica open the film, full of glossy, colourful landscapes starkly contrasting against the poverty suffered by the locals, some of whom are pretty colourful in their own right.  The town bears all the scars, graffiti and otherwise, of the drug and gang culture that blight the community.  The action then moves away from the shanty towns to London and its Jamaican community of the mid 80s, which it re-creates with a clear-eyed honesty.  There’s the distinct sense that Elba drew on his own upbringing in Hackney to give the main part of the film some authenticity.  And the attempts of the more recent arrivals to bring their way of life to the UK give a different perspective on the London of the time and the decade as a whole.

But, once those Jamaican scenes are over and the story’s transplanted to London, the film quickly feels like a just another conventional British gangster thriller.  True, it’s following in a long and strong tradition, but that doesn’t stop it being something familiar but packaged in a different way.  The Jamaican culture is the only aspect of the film that offers anything new.  We’ve seen most of the rest before.

The majority of the cast are black.  The most important white face belongs to vicious crime boss, Rico, played by the ever-reliable Stephen Graham, a man with the uncanny knack of changing his accent depending on who he’s talking to: mock-Rasta for the Jamaicans, broad East End for the English.  His attempts to ingratiate himself with the Jamaicans even extend to a gold tooth or two.  It’s a scene stealing turn, although he doesn’t have it all his own way, with strong performances from Ameen as the central character and Jackson as his girlfriend and mother of his baby.

The crowd scenes, mainly in dance establishments, are well handled and there’s some nice suspense.  The hairs on the back of your neck will prickle when D plays hide and seek with his little daughter and can’t find her.  The climax is almost equally nervy, although the very last scene descends into something overly soft, putting it at odds with the rest of the film.  Although the overall running time is too long, this is still a solid directorial debut from Elba and a crowd pleasing one that his many fans will flock to.  He shows plenty of promise, so which side of the camera he decides to stay on in the future is entirely up to him.

Yardie is screened at Sundance London on Friday, 1 June and Sunday, 3 June.

Freda Cooper |[rating=3]

Drama, Crime | 15 | UK, 24 August (2018) | StudioCanal | Dir. Idris Elba| Aml Ameen, Sheldon Shepherd, Shantol Jackson and Stephen Graham.

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