Dom Hemingway: Toronto Review

'Dom Hemingway'

Dom Hemingway (Jude Law) is a larger-than-life safecracker who, after 12 years in prison, is drawn back to the perils and pleasures of his criminal lifestyle, while trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Game of Thrones' Emilia Clarke).

A wannabe outrageous gangster saga seems patched together from spare genre parts from a generation ago.

The Jude Law-starrer is a strained attempt to create an iconic gangster film.

Fancying itself a thrillingly profane gangster film along the lines of Sexy Beast, King of New York or Casino (at least the Joe Pesci part), Dom Hemingway feels more like a pretender, a self-conscious and strained attempt to create an iconic criminal figure.

Spewing vulgar, rip-roaring monologues with quasi-Shakespearean aspirations, Jude Law’s title character is on a savage rampage, only to do a turnabout and seek redemption for his sins toward the end. Richard Shepard’s film is far from dull, but it just doesn’t feel like the real thing, more like an artificial construct inspired by pumped-up crime favorites from a couple of decades ago. This British production could find favor with gangland aficionados and Law fans on its home turf in November, but American audiences are less likely to bite when Fox Searchlight launches the U.S. release next April.

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The litmus test for someone’s overall reaction to the film can be found in the opening shot. Nude but framed in a single take well above the belt, Law’s imprisoned title character roars straight to the camera about the almighty power of his male member, extolling its power and resilience in terms both exalted and crude in a rant meant to startle and impress. Well, you may not have ever heard anything quite like it before, but the predominant impression is that the filmmakers just wanted to shock, yet it feels fake, done for calculated effect, and the rest of the movie follows suit.

Restraint, calculation and shrewd judgment are terms not easily associated with Dom Hemingway. Released after 12 years in the slammer for having taken the fall for his boss for a major crime, Dom is met by his best mate, Dickie (Richard E. Grant), for a three-day booze, blow and babes binge before boarding the train for France, where he expects significant recompense from the big man for his sacrifice.

Arriving at an exquisite countryside villa, Dom almost at once launches into a drunken harangue to his elegant host Fontaine (Demian Bichir) about how much the latter owes him, spewing vile invective in language that would shame Al Swearengen and ultimately announcing that the reward he should really receive is Fontaine’s exotic girlfriend, Paolina (Madalina Ghenea). Dickie observes this with helpless mortification, but amazingly Fontaine calmly tolerates it all and, once Dom has calmed down and apologized, gives his minion three quarters of a million pounds in cash.

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Unrestrained and foolish as always, Dom then instigates a stupid accident that proves fatal to some and financially ruinous to him; Paolina, he realizes, has made off with his reward.

Shepard, whose last feature was the 2005 Pierce Brosnan hitman caper The Matador, suddenly shifts gears upon Dom and Dickie’s return to London. At long last realizing that he’s a complete screw-up, Dom, whose wife died of cancer during his incarceration, tries to reconnect with his daughter, Evelyn (Emilia Clarke), a struggling singer with a mute young son who seems to like this strange older guy. However, the resentful Evelyn wants no part of her heretofore neglectful dad, and eventually turns to a former criminal contact who hates him, pint-sized black gangster Lestor (Jumayn Hunter), to get a shot to prove himself at his old expertise: safe-cracking.

This leads to a ridiculous bet: If Dom can open Dickie’s hi-tech office safe within 10 minutes, he gets a job; if not, Lestor gets to cut off Dom’s highly prized willy. Even if you’re still with it at this point, you still may not swallow the follow-up in which Dom emotes regretfully at his wife’s grave only to shortly have an unexpected encounter with the long-forgotten Paolina. Dom’s struggle for redemption feels provoked by desperation and possibly insincere.

Speaking in his own S.E. London Woolwich accent, Law lets fly with a balls-out performance as a brash bad boy whose thoughtlessness trumps his modest criminal ability. The actor puts on a big show, but the character remains artificial in the extreme. The great and too-seldom-seen Grant unfortunately has an entirely reactive role as both Dom’s enabler and tsk-tsking wrangler -- a rewrite giving him some ripe, mordant lines and real character definition other than "best friend" would have been welcome. As a Bond-style villain, Bichir lacks a sense of true malevolence under the gentlemanly facade.

Stylistically, Dom Hemingway is bright and bold in all departments.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival
Opens: November 8 (UK), April 4, 2014 (US) (Fox Searchlight)
Production: Recorded Picture Company, Jeremy Thomas Production
Cast: Jude Law, Richard E. Grant, Demian Bichir, Emilia Clarke, Kerry Condon, Jumayn Hunter, Madalina Ghenea, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett
Director: Richard Shepard
Screenwriter: Richard Shepard
Producer: Jeremy Thomas
Executive producers: Steve Norris, Peter Watson, Zygi Kamasa
Director of photography: Giles Nuttgens
Production designer: Laurence Dorman
Costume designer: Julian Day
Editor: Dana Congdon
Music: Rolfe Kent
93 minutes