Literally minutes after finishing the abstract bleakness (or is bleak abstraction better?) of Under the Skin (which I will discuss in due time), I sat down to watch Dom Hemingway, expecting a light, profane refresher to improve my mood. While I laughed quite a few times, and continue to be impressed by Jude Law’s dedication and versatility, the film rests almost solely on his performance. The supporting cast has relatively little to do, and the story is pretty thin stuff. But Law does hold up his end and then some, and makes the film worth watching–though not necessarily worth going out of your way to see.
The film begins with Dom (Law), a veteran safecracker, being released from jail after 12 years. He meets up with his closest friend, Dickie Black (Richard E. Grant), who informs him that their boss, Mr. Fontaine (Demian Bichir) wishes to see him. After a few days of raucous partying, they travel to France to visit Fontaine, where Dom demands not only the money Fontaine owes him, but interest on that money and a “present”–namely, the chance to sleep with Fontaine’s girlfriend, Paolina (Madalina Ghenea). When Fontaine demurs, Dom savagely insults him, and later tries to flee on foot, fearing that Fontaine will kill him.
Urged by Dickie, he asks and receives Fontaine’s forgiveness, after which Fontaine gives him the 250,000 pounds he is owed–plus another 500,000 in recognition of his refusal to cooperate with the authorities. A party follows, after which Dom causes a drunken car accident which kills Fontaine and nearly kills a young woman named Melody (Kerry Condon), whose life Dom saves and who predicts that Dom will have good luck when he most needs it. Meanwhile, Paolina uses the chaos of the accident to abscond with Dom’s money, whereupon he returns to London, drunkenly crashing on the doorstep of his estranged daughter, Evelyn (Emilia Clarke).
After meeting Evelyn’s Senegalese boyfriend, Hugh (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), the father of Dom’s grandson Jawara (Jordan Nash), Dom goes to see Evelyn sing at a club, but is too afraid to speak to her. He decides, to his and Dickie’s dismay, that his best option is to offer his services to Lestor (Jumayn Hunter), the son of Dom’s former enemy. Lestor is not keen on hiring Dom–he still holds a grudge against Dom for killing his cat years earlier. He finally agrees to give Dom a shot: if Dom can crack an electronic safe in his office in 10 minutes, he’ll be hired. If not, he’ll be emasculated.
Dom accepts the challenge in typical fashion, breaking the safe out of the wall with a sledgehammer and severing its cables (alerting a security team), before shaking the safe until the tumblers fall into position. Lestor then reveals that the safe in question was really a toy safe inside the electronic safe, and that he intends to make good on his threat. Dom cries foul, which Lestor counters by pointing out that Dom’s code of ethics has done him little good; he kept his mouth shut and got 12 years in prison, missing his wife’s death and most of his daughter’s life. Just as Lestor is about to sever Dom’s manhood, the security team arrives, whereupon he and Dickie flee into the night.
Dom approaches Evelyn and tries to apologize for his failures, but she rebuffs him. The following day, Dom visits his wife’s grave, and breaks down in tears, realizing what a wreck he has made of his life. Jawara appears, and leads Dom to Evelyn (Dom had previously invited them to visit the grave with him), where, after a strained conversation, Evelyn agrees to let Dom walk Jawara to school the following Monday. Dom then sees Paolina going into a restaurant, and confronts her, telling her that while by nature he would kill her for what she has done, his luck has finally changed for the better and he intends to live his life to the fullest. He leaves, and we discover that he’s stolen her diamond ring. (End spoilers.)
That Dom Hemingway ends so abruptly is not its only shortcoming, but it may be its most baffling. Assuming that it intended to follow the classic three-act structure, it feels as if the third act was simply lopped off. While we know more or less what’ll happen–Dom will gradually win his way back into Evelyn’s heart, etc.–and while it could’ve gone down a familiar and sappy path had it continued, the ending as is feels rather unsatisfying. Dickie is never seen again after the scene in Lestor’s office, Dom has barely begun his redemption (though he’s hardly straight-and-narrow)…one feels a bit cheated.
Not that the story was anything special to begin with. It’s the stuff of many a British crime comedy, but rather than reminding me of Snatch or Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, it brought things like Layer Cake and RocknRolla to mind–not bad films, per se, but not too inspiring either. Fontaine and Lestor are pretty bland antagonists, though Bichir brings a suitable sense of menace to the role (he has a good monologue about beating up his best friend over an accident the friend caused–suggesting that Dom would be in a far worse position should he decide to retaliate), and Hunter gets some good mileage out of Lestor’s grudge (“That cat was my friend!”)
Grant is good as Dickie, the dry foil to Dom’s intense vulgarity. One wishes the relationship had a little more meat to it, but Grant makes Dickie decidedly more memorable than the character actually is. Ghenea has little to do but look pretty, while Condon is pretty much a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, though she and Dom show no signs of being involved. Game of Thrones fans need not check this out for Clarke’s sake; she has virtually nothing to do.
Law is the whole show here, really, and it’s a good thing he’s so good. Dom is as vulgar as they come, as well as violent and casually racist (though he takes to Jawara quickly), but despite his drunken, drug-fuelled revelry, he’s ultimately haunted by his failures as a human being, and it’s all to Law’s credit that he makes Dom’s reflective moments as effective as they are; in lesser hands, they could have seemed grossly sentimental. That said, it’s Dom’s dark side that’s the main attraction here, and Law jumps right in, having an absolute blast right from his opening monologue, which is a little self-consciously written, but Law sells it.
Whether it’s trading quips with Grant, trying to shake down Bichir, or just bemoaning his miseries at the universe, Law rules the roost like Dom rules–or thinks he rules–London. It’s a great performance, and if this is a weak enough year for comedies, a Golden Globe Musical/Comedy Actor nomination wouldn’t be unwarranted. (A win would be a bit much, though.)
In technical terms, the picture is adequate. Writer-director Richard Shepard handles it smoothly, if unremarkably, while Giles Nuttgens’ cinematography makes it easy enough on the eyes.
I paid to see Dom Hemingway in theaters, which I wouldn’t especially recommend; beyond Law’s performance, it’s awfully slight. But if you should catch it on Netflix or cable or wherever and can see it for free, it’s not a bad way to spend 90 minutes.