Dom Hemingway
(UK, 93 min.)
Written and directed by Richard Shepard
Starring: Jude Law, Richard E. Grant, Demian Bichir, Kerry Condon, Emilia Clarke.
Jude Law (left) and Richard E. Grant (right) in Dom Hemingway
Now here’s the Jude Law who fucked the nanny! The usually dapper Brit blows the lid off his suave screen persona with a giant F-bomb and the result is fucking brilliant. Law immerses himself deeply within the grotesque, yet charming, and profanity-spewing thug Dom Hemingway. Dom Hemingway is a coarse and stylish boor with a sinful swagger. He’s Jude Law like you’ve never seen him before on film: the bad boy, the debauched debonair, the poetic poondog. Dom Hemingway offers Law’s best performance in over a decade.

It’s a true makeover of a turn. Law packs on the pounds with a bit of muscle, a bit more flab, and a lot more beer belly. He accentuates the character’s oily roughness with a scruffy beard and an exaggerated shave of his receding hairline, and he fills Dom’s stylish suits with an intense arrogance.

Law teases the audience with a scintillating preview of the full gonzo performance they can expect when Dom Hemingway opens with the actor delivering a bravura dedication to Dom’s sturdy cock while a penitentiary nurse fellates him behind bars. The speech, which has the syntax and seediness of pulp fiction poetry, is an uproarious introduction to the Dom. Dom pumps up his pecker with Frank T.J. Mackey-ish flair and he says the C-word just as often. He also says the other C-word, the F-word, and “piss” and “shit” and all that. There’s a rough poetry to the crackling wordplay of Dom Hemingway, especially since Dom isn’t one to watch his fucking language.

He’s a mass of contradictions, Dom, as evidenced by him blowing his own load in the opening scene. He’s eloquent, yet crass; suave, yet sketchy; charismatic, yet repulsive. It’s a testament to Law’s skill that he makes such a repugnant man such a likable rascal. There’s just the right hint of affectation to the way Dom sprouts obscenities that makes his coarseness seems classy. Dom is the Wolf of Wall Street among common English crooks.

Dom, like Jordan Belfort, is a full-rager hedonist as he works outside the law to line his pockets and as he dips in to all sorts of sordid behaviour between gigs. Dom Hemingway rivals Wolf in the drugs, jugs, and thugs department (if one keeps in mind that Dom is roughly half the length of The Wolf of Wall Street), but Dom’s taste for the bad stuff doesn’t seem quite as objectionable as Belfort’s does. Dom, unlike Jordan, has an ethical code. After all, he finishes a twelve-year prison sentence shortly after the film begins and the ensuing events reveal that he could have easily shaved a few years off his stint had he snitched his boss, Mr. Fontaine (Demian Bichir). Dom’s dozen years of confinement also give him a plunging sense of loss, as the years behind bars robbed of the chance to raise his daughter (played in her adult years by a good, if miscast, Emilia Clarke). There’s something humane, even relatable, about Dom as he goes around punching the shit out of people to redeem all the time and money he lost.

Dom Hemingway challenges the viewer not to like its piggish gangster at every turn. Dom’s first move when he gets out of the slammer is to track down and pulverize the man who became his daughter’s stepfather. However, as with Dom's bj soliloquy, Dom Hemingway makes it hard to look away from this obnoxious man. Writer/director Richard Shepard (The Matador) holds on Dom in a very tight shot that (mostly) obscures the victim from the frame as Dom transforms the guy’s face into a bloody pulp. There’s so much anger, fierceness, and hunger in Law’s performance that the violence almost feels operatic, like an aria of dirty punches letting off steam for a man who lost twelve years of his life and needs a place to vent. Shepard undercuts the violence, though, by normalizing Dom’s aggression with a spot-on bit of British humor as Dom trades niceties and friendly chitchat with the eyewitnesses standing by in the station.

The humour Dom Hemingway consistently balances the grandiose R-ratedness of the violence and Dom’s vernacular. Shepard brings Dom Hemingway into a fine middle ground of Guy Ritchie-ish British gangster pics. The film is just as stylish as it is funny, but the characteristic Englishness of the film—the ever-present attention to manners, formality, and diction—both explodes and offsets the coarseness of the gangster elements. Take, for example, Dom’s partner-in-crime Dickie (a fun Richard E. Grant) who is forever by Dom’s side sporting a fake hand and a wardrobe of flamboyant ponce. (The costumes by Julian Day are a highlight.) Dickie is the straight man to Don’s unhinged madness and Grant’s reaction shot is often just as funny as the sauce spewing from Law’s mouth.

It’s unfortunate, then, that Dom Hemingway doesn’t work as well overall as its performances do. The strange chapter structure of the film is a bit of a mess, as Dom Hemingway spends a good third of the film building some tension as Dom and Dickie make a trip to Mr. Fontaine’s to claim what Dom feels he is owed. Shepard, however, gives the film an unexpected turn in a hilarious car accident, which is the film’s most stylish centrepiece, before bringing the film to a weird mid-section that sees Dom (and Dom) go in several directions. He wants to enter the safe-cracking business and/or go straight and reunite with his daughter. The safe-cracking story offers a few good jokes about a dead cat named Banane and introduces a tense rivalry with a young gangster (Jumayne Hunter). The daughter storyline, however, feels forced, especially since the age difference between Law and Clarke makes it a bit hard to believe that the Law is both her father and a grandfather to her son. Both stories give Law full room to do his thing, though, so Dom Hemingway works best as a riotous performance piece. Dom Hemingway is Law’s show and he owns every uproarious frame of it.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Dom Hemingway is currently playing in Toronto at Cineplex Yonge and Dundas.
It opens in Ottawa on April 25.
Update: It opens at The Mayfair June 6.

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