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There’s something missing in “Yardie,” Idris Elba’s directorial debut, but I can’t quite place my finger on it. The acting is decent, the cinematography is well-executed, and the music is on point, but the delivery and the tone are completely mismatched. It feels as if the film itself is aching to say something more, but is ultimately muted by choices the freshman director withheld from making.
Based on the 1992 book by Victor Headley, the film opens in 1973 Kingston, Jamaica. There’s a gang war, and young D (Antwayne Eccleston) is being raised by his older brother, Jerry Dread (Everaldo Creary, “Better Mus Come”) while King Fox (Sheldon Shepherd) — a gang leader, don, and music producer — acts a sort of father figure to both. During a concert meant to unite rival gangs in Kingston, Jerry is gunned down, leaving D to be raised by King Fox.
Years later, adult D (Aml Ameen, “Sense 8”) is working for King Fox in whatever capacity he needs, which includes becoming a courier to London where he needs to deliver cocaine to local crime boss Rico (Stephen Graham, “Boardwalk Empire”). While in London, D attempts to reconnect with his childhood love, Yvonne (Shantol Jackson) and their young daughter, who he hasn’t seen since her infancy. The coke deal goes awry, and as D figures out his next step, he must choose between keeping his family safe or taking down the person he thinks killed his brother.
Though the film offers solid performances from its ensemble, much of Ameen’s work is overshadowed by clumsy narration that weaves in and out at odd moments. Ameen is capable of carrying much of the film’s inner monologues in his own performance, which makes the narration extraneous and baffling.
Graham, a fine actor, does the best he can with the caricature of a drug lord he is given. The problem lies in the script by Brock Norman Brock (“Bronson”) and Martin Stellman (“Babylon”): Rico reads like a parody instead of the actual threat he may pose to D, which isn’t Graham’s fault, but the writers’ and director Elba’s indecisive choices.
Having not read Headley’s novel, but knowing that it became a literary sensation by being sold outside concert halls and hair salons within the very community it discusses, it would appear that the source material has more to say about warring neighborhoods, and the rampant drugs and crime surrounding them. In the big-screen version of “Yardie,” these ideas are touched on superficially without going deep enough to provide true representation. The film’s tone wobbles between full-on crime drama and the book’s empathetic portrayal of a specific community.
Elba’s film reflects conflict through its soundtrack, relying solely on music supervisor Nick Angel’s choices, which exude both the joy of the Rastafarian lifestyle and the darkness of a country plagued by gang wars. There are moments when an adult D takes the mic and spouts verses that are beautiful, painful and poetic, but this B-story goes nowhere, thus ending any way of having the music save the choppiness of the film’s tone.
Director of photography John Conroy (who worked with Elba on TV’s “Luther”) also tries to bridge the gaps in tone by allowing the audience a chance to see a side of Jamaica that isn’t typically seen. The country remains as beautiful as we’re used to seeing it, but Conroy makes the dark underbelly come alive in color, showing what a beautifully broken existence it is to live in a world with a stunning landscape surrounded by poverty and crime. On the flip side, however, London could have been presented a bit grittier — instead it feels tidy, despite the chaos Rico and his gang cause.
There’s no question that Elba is a talented actor, but his debut on the other side of the lens falls a bit short. Director need to make decisions to get a story across, and Elba appears to have been too shy or too reluctant to make them. “Yardie” suffers for it.