Dom Hemingway Artwork by Mister G

Dom Hemingway

Director / Script: Richard Shepard / Editing: Dana Congdon / DP: Giles Nuttgen / Score: Rolfe Kent

Cast: Jude LawRichard E. Grant / Madalina D. Ghenea / Demián Birchir / Kerry Condon / Emilia Clarke / Nathan Stewart-Jarrett / Jumayn Hunter  


game of two halves…


Any picture that has the cojones to cold-open with a half-shot of its (naked, schlubby & overweight) lead, apparently receiving a blow-job, whilst eulogising to-camera about his member’s various attributes, deserves ninety minutes of my time, though given the mixed reaction afforded Dom Hemingway upon release, it seems not everyone took such a generous, err, position.

Yes, there’s a gag at the end (no pun intended) and the scene shows Dom in full self-congratulatory flow, but I can see how such a confrontational opening might divide an audience: which was probably the director’s intention all-along… That would be Richard Shepard, a native New Yorker and accomplished writer/director for American TV, with just one other feature to his credit prior to this: the under-rated Matador (2005, starring Pierce Brosnan). For this project, he started with a premise as old as storytelling itself: a prisoner is released after a long stretch (in this case, twelve years): what does he do then?

That storied path is littered with clichés and traps for the unwary, but I think Shepard steered his own course here, creating in Dom, something of an anachronistic character ‘out of sync’ with the world he finds himself in, and blessed with a personality so rich in idiom and language as to appear anomalous, yet with an underlying violent psychosis. Let us not forget, that his inability to control this underlying rage is a (probable) factor as to how he landed in jail in the first place – and it’s been simmering ever since…

As production looked likely, the search for an actor brave enough to take-on such a violent, almost repulsive character led to Jude Law. Law had never played someone so extreme before and apparently relished exploring the ‘force of nature’ conjured in Shepard’s screenplay; even piling-on a couple of stones in weight and exposing his receding hairline, to accentuate the ‘bad-boy-gone-to-seed’ look.

That he remains a villainous recidivist after incarceration is left in little doubt: his first act on leaving chokey, is to visit his ex-wife’s second husband and beat him to a pulp, at the bus depot where he works as a mechanic. For Dom, it’s a cathartic release of pent-up anger & frustration, but for us, it’s a shocking glimpse into the workings of a maniacal mind. Having made ‘Bolognese’ out of the unfortunate Sandy Butterfield’s face, he sneers: “I should fuckin’ kill you. But I fancy a pint instead.” Dom is clearly a man wrestling with demons.

It’s in the pub, where he encounters old friend and colleague, Dickie, played by the wonderful Richard E. Grant. It’s a good point to break-off and give kudos to the film’s costume designer Julian Day, who has, with these two characters, created walking museums. Dickie might not have been lately detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure, yet his wardrobe looks like it came from the same late-Seventies / early eighties jumble sale. It’s all here: Safari jacket? Yep. Wide-lapel blazers with contrast stitching? Uh-huh. Fussy shirts and chest medallions? Them too and much else besides. The overall effect, is to paint these two guys as true outsiders; criminal misfits, whose own limited horizons & poor judgement, combined to keep them down and hold them back. Their wardrobe is so cheesy because of the time each man is presumed to have spent ‘out of circulation’; having a smart wardrobe is apparently the least of their problems…

Dickie might very well be Dom’s best friend which, given his oft-explosive, unpredictable temperament, has likely been a tiring role to fill, so the casting of Grant was inspired. A man of cultured diction and manners, Richard E. Grant seldom played against type in his career, yet made an exception for this picture, precisely because it offered a chance to break the mould. An older man than Law, he imbues Dickie with much-needed weariness and resignation whilst allowing himself a degree of near-pride on witnessing Dom’s antics, like a master watching his protégé in action. He’s so good in this, that if a sequel were ever commissioned, it’s the story of ‘Gentleman Thief, Dickie’ I’d pay to see…

I digress. Dickie raises the prospect of a meeting with Mr. Fontaine: the Euro-villain who Dom didn’t grass-up whilst in the nick, but whose job he was on when caught… He and Dickie travel to Fontaine’s opulent villa on the French Riviera, complete with disturbing photographic portraits of a few close neighbours, genetically speaking, piles of cocaine and a few (more) girls, to add to the roster already on Fontaine’s payroll.

Fontaine is portrayed with a calm, assured detachment by the Mexican actor Demián Birchir who in looks, dress-sense and overall demeanour, appears to have strolled-off a casino scene in a Bond movie; a greater contrast to our pair of shabby Brits, I can’t imagine… Still, he’s the one man thus-far who, when confronted by Dom’s singular brand of obnoxity, doesn’t rise to the bait. If anything, Fontaine’s calmness only builds character. At one point, Dickie refers to Fontaine as ‘the most dangerous man in Europe’ and there’s a moment when you believe him: when Fontaine relates his own origin story to a wary Dom. Out of context, it’s almost laughable – pathetic, even – yet it works in the picture; it reminds me of the solemnity afforded the revelations about the ‘Nihilists’ in The Big Lebowski (1999).

Act One is thus concluded, by a striking sequence as they all pile into Fontaine’s Rolls-Royce convertible. Dom drives as erratically as expected, standing at the wheel like a ship’s drunken Captain, while delivering yet more oratory declaiming himself ‘having dominion over the Earth’. The inevitable crash, against an operatic soundtrack, is laugh-aloud funny, as in slo-mo, we track our hero’s trajectory up and out of the mayhem & carnage unfolding behind him; when Dickie’s (false) hand pirouettes before Dom’s – and our – disbelieving eyes, I confess to having giggled.

Act One’s real kick in the teeth, comes when Dom confronts Fontaine’s girlfriend Paolina (Madelina Ghelena), who’s driving-off with his reward for silence in prison: and he lets her go, too exhausted and shell-shocked to stop her…

The film’s second half, sees our hapless duo back in London. Penniless and needing a job, Dom’s options appear slim – until he meets Lestor Jr., the son of an old ‘rival in crime’, who’s since taken-over ‘the family business’. While that thread develops, director Shepard also has Dom reach-out to Evelyn, his estranged daughter, played by Emilia Clarke. She’d grown in-prominence as an actress, thanks to her key role on the TV series Game of Thrones and I’m willing to bet, that the producers hoped Clarke’s name on the poster, would attract a younger audience, for whom both Law & Grant were fading stars admired by their parents…

For all my cynicism however, Clarke makes the most of a scant, underwritten part. Then again, the picture’s called ‘Dom Hemingway’, so I guess there’d only ever be limited scope to build-out her character. Not that it tries too hard with our hero either, in the second half.

The film’s first half is, in some respects, a tight masterclass of writing. Dom is a Rabelaisian, dissolute madman with a headstrong character that propels the plot through his actions. He might be a mess, but somewhere in there, he’s a principled man of the old school who just wants Fontaine to give him what he believes he deserves, in the furthered belief that, when he gets it, life will be sweet once more. When ‘Fate’ denies him (as it has to, for the drama to evolve) that assured cockiness wavers. When tackling the opening of a safe in Lestor’s office, it remains in full-force, but the aftermath of that encounter leaves Dom pondering his mortality, values and the one thing he prizes above all: his manhood. He’s undone.

Visiting his ex-wife’s grave, we see a glimpse of the boy within the man, but it’s too late. Too late. The seedy underdog has finally understood the truth: while he was away, the rules changed. And he got older…

It’s an anticlimactic way to leave him. After the verbal pyrotechnics and psychotic violence, we end-up at a graveside that, by rights, ought to be occupied by Dom himself. That he isn’t pushing-up daisies is a minor miracle but, somehow, I can’t see him being reformed this late in the game.

This tonal shift thus undermines a strong first half, as though Shepard either doubted that opening conviction or couldn’t resolve the two halves of Dom’s story-arc. Each work fine as independent pieces, but struggle to form a coherent, unified picture. Psychotic, indeed…

I’m not burying your body out here. I’m too fucking old and I didn’t bring the right shoes!

Dom Hemingway  Triple Word / Score: Verbose / Falstaffian / Dissolute / Seven

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