From my perspective, there are two Jude Laws. The first Jude Law broke out in GATTACA and THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, and he’s made a solid career out of playing handsome, usually somewhat-ignorant cads. Remember when he was in 6, count ‘em, six
movies back in 2004? All but one of those appearances (his offscreen narration for LEMONY SNICKET’S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS) were in that mold. He’s consistently good, if not uber-memorable in these roles, and has transitioned nicely into his 40s by adding a mature knowingness to these performances in movies like THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS, the SHERLOCK HOLMES films, and, most recently, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL. But this isn’t the Jude Law we get in DOM HEMINGWAY. Not by a fucking mile.
No, here we get that other Jude Law. The one that danced on feet that seemed lighter than air as a robotic gigolo in Spielberg’s A.I.: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE. The one that killed people and took pictures of their deaths in ROAD TO PERDITION. The one who creeped on the sidelines of CONTAGION, unwilling to let his scumminess die off along with the millions of diseased innocents. That Jude Law always seemed, to me, to be the more interesting actor, a crazed, grimy instrument capable of unpredictable, harrowing madness, and I always believed that guy got the short end of the stick while the pretty-boy Jude was making women swoon in more traditional “handsome guy” roles. Enter DOM HEMINGWAY.
HEMINGWAY opens in jail, with a long take showing the titular character getting a blow job from a fellow inmate while spouting off aggrandizing claims about his own member, telling you right off the bat to GTFO if you were hoping for that first Jude Law we discussed earlier. Dom gets “the call”, and goes back on the street, immediately reconnecting with his pal, Dickie (Richard E. Grant), as well as his appetites for booze, coke, and hookers. He did 12 years because he refused to rat out his boss, Fontaine (Demian Bichir), but his attempt to get compensated for keeping his mouth shut goes miserably sour, and the high of his newfound freedom immediately wears off. He’s just a broke, aging, over-the-hill safecracker stumbling around London, kicking and screaming to reattach some clout to that oft-repeated name of his. Worst of all: his wife left him while he was inside before dying of cancer, and his estranged daughter (Emilia Clarke) wants nothing to do with him. Dom, with Dickie’s help, tries to regain his reputation, repair his relationship with his daughter, and reclaim his dignity, all while inhaling copius amounts of substances and exhaling a neverending spew of obscenities and bile.
As its title, may suggest, DOM HEMINGWAY is a character study in the truest sense of the word. Aside from the “CARLITO’S WAY by way of the cockney gangster flick” setup, there’s a scarce amount of plot; the film is divided into several chapters, each highlighting an episode in Dom’s path to recovery. The chapters are fairly self-contained, and there’s not the kind of increasing sense of dread and paranoia that dominates the aforementioned De Palma flick. This is about Dom, and he’s the focus of every scene in the film, and boy, he’s a fascinating, hard-to-like bloke. By the time he’s cussing out his former employer, insulting his girlfriend and demanding what he thinks he’s owed plus “a present,” we’d want to smack him in the face if he weren’t so damned entertaining to watch. But despite his borderline-hideous tough-guy demeanor, we constantly see his humanity bubbling underneath, and I have to give Law all the credit for keeping his audience aware of that side of him while having the time of his life as a nefarious arsehole.
The film sometimes feels like a GET CARTER/SEXY BEAST-type gangster flick, particularly in its early sections. Jude Law played Michael Caine’s original roles in both ALFIE and SLEUTH (opposite Caine himself), but he’s never seemed more like early, rough-around-the-edges Caine than he does here. Jack Carter would probably be annoyed to piss by Dom Hemingway (and probably vice versa), but I would totally believe that they’d know all the same people and frequent the same corner pubs. There are expletive-filled tirades on par with anything Ben Kingsley hollered at Ray Winstone in Jonathan Glazer’s film, and there’s a ton of lovingly-composed images showing Dom and his pals messing with drugs and prostitutes like Alex and his Droogs.
But there’s also a soft side to this film. It’s not sappy, or even overly-sentimental, the way you may expect when you hear about Dom trying to make amends with his now-grown daughter. There are no “I’m a broken down piece of meat…I just don’t want you to hate me”-type speeches here. It’s just…he’s human. He’s larger-than-life, sure, but he’s also human, and when the curtain gets pulled back and we see Dom for what he is, rather than what he wants to appear to be, it’s fairly striking. I could see these scenes ruining the film for those looking for a purely-comedic, Guy Ritchie-esque British gangster flick, but they contain the heart and soul of this film, and cobbles together an emotional center amidst the gangster banter and Dom’s proud anarchism. And again, I have to give credit where credit is due, and acknowledge that Law’s performance is a big part of why we end up empathizing (if not sympathizing) with Dom’s troubles.
Like I suggested before, it’s the “ugly” Law that we get here. Sure, he still looks somewhat handsome, and we see that his body hasn’t yet succumbed to the realities of middle-age, but his nose, teeth, and hair are visibly fucked up and grotesque. He’s not Daniel Craig in LAYER CAKE or Paul Bettany in GANGSTER NO. 1, dolling up his sociopathy with a pretty face and a nice suit. No, this guy’s a rough ol’ bastard, and Law lets you see it a mile away, while still letting you in on his weaknesses and humanity. You don’t think the crazy bullshit he pulls is a front; at times, his gleefully self-destructive behavior makes him seem like a genuine loon. Other times, you see the emotional toll this has taken on him, particularly after 12 years of introspection and repressed ambition. One late-in-the-film confessional brought me to tears in its rawness, honesty, and tangible sense of regret. We know this guy’s fucked, but Law makes sure we know that he knows he’s fucked, and it makes for an eminently watchable performance, very possibly the best of his career thus far.
I compared the film to CARLITO’S WAY before, and aside from sharing the central story of a released convict trying to do right by his loved ones, there’s another crucial similarity: both Dom and Carlito believe in “honor among thieves,” while the criminal world they reenter has long shedded those notions off for ruthless pragmatism. He may look and act more nasty than his criminal peers, but they always decry him for believing in a “code”, and not immediately assuming the worst in everyone he meets. Even his daughter gives him shit for not ratting out his boss, which would have allowed him to watch her grow up, and to take care of his wife while she succumbed to her illness. It’s a refreshing change from the typical rock-hard London criminals we usually see in these films, and helps make DOM HEMINGWAY much more than just another throwaway gangster flick.
The rock-solid supporting cast doesn’t hurt either. Dimian Bichir is wonderfully controlled as the wealthy and corrupt Fontaine, and watching him constantly try to navigate through Dom’s tirades is hilarious and tense at the same time. Emilia Clarke, unrecognizable without her Khaleesi getup, doesn’t get as big of a part as you may expect, but she knows how to cut an impression with very subtle indicators of how wounded her character’s been. She’s long given up on Dom, but he’s still her father, and her evident inner conflict between wanting to help her struggling old man and her resentment for his deplorable lifestyle makes her more than just a plot element. ATTACK THE BLOCK’s Jumayn Hunter has a memorable turn as a gangster with a bone to pick with Dom, there’s a ravishing turn by an actress named Madalina Diana Ghenea (as Fontaine’s gal), and Kerry Condon is absolutely hilarious as an ever-optimistic young woman named Melody (who may very well be part of Dom’s imagination).
But as a Richard E. Grant fan, I cannot express how giddy his work in this film made me. When the film functions as a sort of buddy-comedy between Dom and Grant’s Dickie (which you only get a mere taste of in the trailers), I had a perpetual grin on my face. Dickie’s the yin to Dom’s yang, the guy who knows when to keep his mouth shut and do what he’s told, and how to maintain a decent lifestyle within the criminal underworld, unlike his lifelong buddy. He constantly tries to keep Dom under control, and some of the funniest bits in the film simply involve him trying to put on a straight face while Dom says the wrong stuff to the wrong people, putting them both under the gun. But when the coast is clear, and they’re both in party mode, you see that Dickie’s got that anarchic bent that Dom wears in his sleeve, just with a sense of control that keeps him out of the scrapes that consistently plague his boy. Between this and his recent run on GIRLS, it’s amazing to see Grant still cutting loose and letting his inner Withnail run wild in his mid-50s; for fans of his, this film’s a must-see.
Writer/director Richard Shepard (who also directed one of Grant’s GIRLS episodes, as well as this season’s excellent June Squibb ep) won me over with the Pierce Brosnan/Greg Kinnear hitman flick, THE MATADOR, but he’s outdone himself here. From the reception it got across the pond, I got the impression that this was another wannabe gangster flick with an top-notch cast & crew, much like William Monahan’s LONDON BOULEVARD. Instead, I got a flick that managed to bring me to tears of both the laugh-induced and emotional variety. I implore you to give the film a shot, either in theaters (where the audience will really enhance the comic high points) or on VOD (where you can enjoy the dramatic stuff without feeling the wave of boredom that plagues more ADD-addled audience members).