“A peasant at heart—with good hair and a strong liver”
After finding a ton of work on television recently, it’s good to see writer/director Richard Shepard back in theaters with Dom Hemingway. I’m a big fan of both The Matador and The Hunting Party for their infectious humor despite somewhat mainstream stories. So, learning his latest work centered around an extremely short-tempered, alcoholic safecracker just out of prison whose vain ego was no worse for wear got me excited at the prospect of him possibly going for broke. To a point Shepherd does that and more, but where such insanity helps make unique, memorably drawn characters pop off the screen with irreverent hilarity, the story they inhabit needs a bit more depth to captivate beyond providing a setting for their tomfoolery.
That said, however, Dom is quite the egotistical fool. Played by Jude Law with obvious pleasure, this British criminal is introduced by a masterfully crude soliloquy about his penis. Staring directly into the camera at us while another inmate satisfies his member’s needs just below the frame, we understand vey quickly who this guy is. Confident and self-important, Law chews the scenery with relish as a man who plays by his own rules without fear of consequence. He talks back to the guards, lords over his lunch tablemates in the mess hall, and of course earns the type of privacy necessary to get off without interruption via fear, friendship, or a mix of both. After twelve years locked up not learning a thing, he’s ready to hit the streets as though he never left.
Too much has changed on the outside for his lack of personal ambition to face, though. So what better way to re-acclimate than the prerequisite beat down of the man who married his wife while in jail? This is Dom in a nutshell, dealing with the anger of truth through the only means he knows how. Is he mad at this poor bloke? Sure he is. The larger story, however, is that he was divorced when arrested. He’s therefore really pissed at the fact he missed his daughter’s (Emilia Clarke‘s Evelyn) childhood and the ability to say goodbye to his ex-wife before she succumbed to cancer. Since her new husband got both, he was always going to be Dom’s first stop. The second? The man he quietly served his time for: boss Ivan Fontaine (Demián Bichir).
This is where the craziness takes full control as all thoughts of the plot delving deeper than an inevitable family reunion with his daughter are thrown out the window. Taking best friend and fellow criminal Dickie (Richard E. Grant) along for the ride, Dom takes a trip to Fontaine’s French villa to get the money he’s owed for not turning rat. Being the ornery, entitled mad man he is, however, his just deserts aren’t enough in the heat of the moment. He wants to lord his superiority over a man who could have him killed with a snap of fingers—a truth Dickie knows all too well considering his brilliantly orchestrated facial reactions to Dom’s increasing hostility. It’s merely one of the many fast-paced, profanity-laced diatribes Dom entertains us with before calming down like nothing happened.
Shepard’s script gets more random with hedonistic parties, fatal car crashes, oddly omniscient characters setting Dom’s fate (Kerry Condon‘s Melody), and two comically violent exchanges with a former adversary’s son in hopes of earning some work (Jumayn Hunter‘s Lester). They’re all carefully manipulated events with which Dom can run amok while Dickie looks on with equal amusement, boredom, and disbelief. There aren’t enough mini adventures for the film to become a full-fledged road trip comedy, though, and too many for it to be taken as a serious three act structure of an ex-con’s redemption. No, Dom Hemingway is simply the showcase for a character that could endure in subsequent stories if Shepard and Law decided he was worth revisiting—a hoot of a film to spread R-rated smiles on a rainy day.
I don’t necessarily think anyone involved saw this project as being more than that, though, so it’s by no means a disappointment. I just can’t ignore the potential to go further into the dynamic with Evelyn and her new family so Dom can show growth. But by the time an attempt to do so is made with the sole intention of changing his luck around, we’ve already realized he’ll never not be the immature brute we met getting a prison blowjob at the start. No, Dom is a laugh because his temper gets the best of him during insane situations he somehow escapes unscathed. We revel in watching him gruesomely beat someone up before carrying on a nostalgic conversation with those staring on the periphery. And we enjoy his lewd innuendo when cocky sarcasm gets him in trouble.
But the real coup isn’t the character; it’s Law’s impressive performance bringing him to life. While Bichir and Grant are fantastic supporting players doing exactly what you’d expect in roles similar to ones they’ve played before, Law tackles a part at the other polar extreme of what we’re used to him trying. He’s a Cockney prick with mutton chops and a bad attitude who engages in the sort of fun wordplay exchanges Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie used to write for their old British sketch show when he’s not making the ratings board cringe at a relentless shower of four-lettered words. He’s out of shape, incapable of humility or remorse, wildly unpredictable, and frankly one of the most interesting characters at the Toronto International Film Festival this year. He truly is Dom Hemingway—a one-of-a-kind ****.
courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival