Brighton Rock’s Pinky Brown. The Long Good Friday’s Harry Shand. Sexy Beast’s Don Logan. British gangster films have long had their own line in vicious, eloquent monsters, to which Jude Law’s ferocious Dom Hemingway is the latest addition.
A manic, self-aggrandising egomaniac, Hemingway talks in spittle-flecked monologues and lashes out in frenzies of bruising violence. He’s a fearsome creation, courtesy of a beefed-up Law, but the film that carries him fails to burrow very far beneath the surface of his character.
Having served 12 years in prison for robbery, Hemingway emerges back into civilian life considerably older but not much wiser. He has an estranged daughter, Evelyn (Emilia Clarke) now in her 20s, who he’s too ashamed to speak to. A dangerous gangland boss named Fontaine (Demian Bichir), who stayed out of prison thanks to Hemingway’s loyalty, promises to repay his old partner in crime, but Hemingway’s uncontrollable temper threatens to extinguish any lingering sense of gratitude. As Hemingway constantly tempts fate with his outbursts and drunken debauchery, his old friend Dickie (a brilliant Richard E Grant) can only look on aghast.
The movie opens with a confident jolt and a screen filled with crimson, setting the pace and tone of Richard Shepard’s confident, swaggering direction. Yet while the slick patter flows from the very beginning, as an ecstatic Dom delivers a direct-to-camera ode to the rigidity of his penis, the story around him only occasionally shows the same spark.
Sure, Dom’s a fearsome force of nature, and an early trip to Fontaine’s luxurious country home in France suggests we’re in for a laddish gangster film in the usual British tradition, but the film’s attempted left-turn into touching drama akin to Dexter Fletcher’s Wild Bill doesn’t really sit right with the beatings, one-liners and Guy Ritchie-style scenes of booze and floozies.
The story moves along in fits and starts, offering up one possible plot thread before suddenly dropping it and pursuing another. Throughout it all Law and Grant are great; Grant is a posh, one-handed gentleman thief with a penchant for wide-lapelled clothing. Law, in particular, is evidently putting every sinew and bulging blood vessel into his portrayal of a Cockney, alcoholic, washed-up ex-convict who doesn’t know what to do with his own anger. Yet the overwritten script lets him down, since it doesn’t even know what underpins all this madness, or even how smart he is.
Where does Dom’s wonderful eloquence come from? Is he a frustrated intellectual whose life took a wrong turn, or a thug who’s watched a few Shakespeare tragedies on television? Is he a genuinely great safe cracker, or is he as buffoonish and inept as one overlong and painfully awkward scene implies?
In its best moments, Dom Hemingway works well as a cartoonish comedy drama. Dom’s colourful description of his raging hangover (“You don’t know the revolutions going on inside my head!”) is entertaining in a Withnail kind of way, and it’s a shame the whole film didn’t continue along this more aggressively humorous vein. Instead, it dabbles in different genres, offering up the same cliched and dull gangster film view of women as either unobtainable angels on pedestals or thieving harlots, kitchen sink drama moments of reconciliation, and the kind of bizarre coincidences you might expect in a disposable romantic comedy.
The point, perhaps, is to introduce Dom Hemingway, the self-described “myth and legend” before gradually revealing him to be a hopeless buffoon, but the film, not unlike the man himself, can’t quite decide what it wants to be. There are glimmering moments where it borders on greatness, such as a laugh-out-loud slow-motion sequence on a country road, or an exchange where Dom reveals that he didn’t even realise that his friend Dickie had lost his hand (“I thought the glove was a fashion statement!” he howls).
But ultimately, all the anger and lack of direction eventually makes Dom Hemingway a bit of a chore to sit through. It’s like being regaled in a pub by a drunken bore, as he flits back and forth between violent reproach to maudlin self-pity and back again, without ever getting to the point of his story.
Dom Hemingway is out in UK cinemas on the 15th November.
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