Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Aml Ameen in Yardie
"Altogether, this is a much more confident, complete film than anyone has a right to expect from a new director." | Photo: Alex Bailey

Idris Elba's first directorial experience focused on music so perhaps it's not surprising that his big screen d├ębut would do the same. Set in a club scene that spans Kingston and London, and suffused throughout with the beats that shape its central character's perspective on life, it's a film about the way that cultural identities transcend those of nations in ways both good and bad; and a film about the impossibility of creating a new future for oneself whilst refusing to leave the past behind.

Aml Ameen plays D (with strong supporting work from Antwayne Eccleston, who portrays him as a child), a young man from Jamaica whose life is shaped by gang warfare and the shooting of his beloved uncle. Unable to let this mentor figure go, he comes to believe that he is followed by his spirit - an idea not that unusual in context but carried to the point of obsession. The only way he believes he can set literal and metaphorical ghosts to rest is by exacting revenge, and so he embarks on a path increasingly far from the path of peace that his uncle strove for.

Although this is a story that's been told many times before, Elba, working with a screenplay adapted from Victor Headley's novel, gives it a distinctive character. Where traditionally the men fight and the women, drawn in when threatening them provides leverage, try in vain to impart emotional wisdom and a different perspective, here the music gives us access to D's own emotional landscape. There's no pretence that he's the hard man he effects to be, and we don't have to wait for a dramatic breakdown to get to know him as a person. Ameen deftly puts across the layers of charm and bluster beneath which that still-traumatised youth resides, D meanwhile inveigling himself into a relationship with Yvonne (Shantol Jackson), who left Kingston to try and get away from the kind of trouble he carries with him.

John Conroy's cinematography gives the film a rich, luminous quality, outlining the contrasts between Jamaica and "this cold place" (as Yvonne puts it) but taking that further to recreate the atmosphere of the former in key locations where D confronts elements of his past. The revenge story contains a twist or two of its own, emphasising the limited perspective available to young people and those who hang on to the convictions of their youth. A persistently optimistic quality conveyed by Ameen, the music and the shooting style keeps us hoping for the better ending such tales rarely provide - which increases the tension by emphasising how much D still has to lose.

Altogether, this is a much more confident, complete film than anyone has a right to expect from a new director. Elba has, of course, had the opportunity to work with some highly capable people, and one can only assume that he has learned from the process. Nevertheless, he deserves praise for the tightly managed action scenes and for the strong sense of character and place that makes this such a treat to watch.

Reviewed on: 11 Mar 2019
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Gang wars in Kingston in the Seventies are imported into Hackney in the Eighties affecting the life of a Jamaican boy who seeks vengeance for the murder of his brother
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Angus Wolfe Murray ***1/2

Director: Idris Elba

Writer: Brock Norman Brock, Martin Stellman, based on the novel by Victor Headley

Starring: Aml Ameen, Shantol Jackson, Stephen Graham, Sheldon Shepherd, Everaldo Creary, Mark Rhino Smith, Calvin Demba, Naomi Ackie, Frazer James, Akim Gazi, Jumayn Hunter

Year: 2018

Runtime: 101 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


Sundance 2018

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