There is no more of an artificial, only-in-the-movies conceit then when a character seeking redemption or closure bares their soul in front of a gravestone. That is not to say that no one has ever prostrated themselves on a patch of mud and confessed their sins to a stone marker in “real life,” only that most people have enough imagination to confront difficult feelings without resorting to heavy-handed symbolism. If only the same could be said of most filmmakers.
Written and directed by Richard Shepard (The Matador), Dom Hemingway not only features an overwrought graveside confessional, but indulges star Jude Law in about five minutes of writhing, awards-groveling bathos. Even worse, the graveside sequence is the culmination of a third-act spiral that undermines an otherwise enjoyably coarse black comedy. Shepard and Law create a magnificent character in the titular ex-con Dom, whose spasms of poetic vulgarity (he describes one man as having “a face like an abortion”) could have become film legend, but they confuse sick fascination for genuine affection.
When you see where the film starts, it seems unlikely that drippy soft-heartedness will be its ultimate undoing. In a bracing, hilarious, straight-to-camera monologue destined to never become a staple of youth dramatic classes, Dom offers an epic poem to the holy splendor of his own member, whose “splendid contours” he insists constitute a flawless work of art destined to win the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s a brilliant scene, at once lyrical and offensive, and establishes Dom as a deluded egotist, a point underlined when Dom prematurely ejaculates, and one of his fellow prisoners rises into the frame.
Jude Law grew mutton chop sideburns and added about 30 pounds of English-ale belly to play the title character, and that slight deglamorization seems to have recharged his batteries. Although underappreciated for his work in Side Effects, this is easily Law’s best performance in a decade, and it is especially nice to see him resharpen the comic timing that had been blunted by hacks like Guy Ritchie and Nancy Meyers.
The irresistible gag is that Law’s comedic chops and welcoming blue eyes are in direct to contrast to Dom’s sociopathic behavior and easily offended egotism. We see this the moment that Dom is released from prison, when he makes a beeline back to his old neighborhood in order to brutally assault the man who ended up marrying his now-deceased ex-wife. This is also when we see the worry lines of regret and self-doubt seep into Dom’s face—for all his coke-snorting, self-destructive braggadocio, Dom is filled with a self-loathing that humanizes him.
While he is a fictional creation, Dom Hemingway is cut from the mold of “hard man” criminal biopics such as Chopper and Bronson, with a heavy dollop of Ben Kingsley’s character from Sexy Beast. Shepard’s wrinkle on the genre is to strain it through a filter of distinctly British gallows humor, with Withnail & I getting referenced especially hard, particularly during a lengthy interlude in the South of the France that is the film’s unquestionable highlight. The presence of nattily dressed Withnail & I star Richard E. Grant in the role of Dom’s left-handless right-hand man Dickie only adds to the atmosphere of authenticity.
For a while, this stylish hybrid of hard-man moxie and mannered British comedy works quite well, thanks in large part to Law’s excellent lead performance, as well as lived-in oddball supporting work by Grant, Demian Bichir and Jumayn Hunter. Dom’s sun-blotting egotism and thoughtless descent back into his pre-prison lifestyle makes him distinctly unlikeable, but he is also “a good soldier” who wants to do right by those who do right by him. He is a criminal who “plays by the rules,” an enormous mistake in a world where all of the rules are unwritten and rarely followed.
Unfortunately, Shepard doesn’t have the fortitude to carry the film to its logical conclusion, instead settling for ridiculous deus ex machinas and overindulging a subplot involving Dom’s daughter (Emilia Clarke from Game of Thrones) that never comes together. For a film that begins by soliloquizing its protagonist’s penis, Dom Hemingway is surprisingly short of balls.