‘Dominion’: Film Review | Rio 2016

DOMINION Still 1 -H 2016
Courtesy of Rio de Janeiro Film Festival
A brawling, wordy, drunken poet of a movie.

Premiering at the Rio Film Festival, the film charts the final hours of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, played by Rhys Ifans.

“And death,” declared the Welsh poet, bohemian and drinker Dylan Thomas in the line that gives this film its name, “shall have no dominion.” But in Steven Bernstein’s daring, demanding meditation on the poet’s final hours in the White Horse bar in New York in 1953, Thomas’ death at 39 years old has plenty of dominion, hanging darkly over things right from the start as the poet seemingly embarks on a mission to imbibe himself into the grave in double quick time.

Shot through with an intensity which suggests that more personal demons than Thomas' are being exorcized, Dominion is sometimes satisfyingly intense, sometimes confusing and not always dramatically focused, better (as Thomas himself probably was) in its moments of quiet lucidity than in its multiple passages of excess (however finely these are played by Welshman Rhys Ifans). Made in the spirit of its subject, this a portrait of the artist as someone who has chosen to live in a world of words, and damn the consequences.

But Dominion’s daring never becomes pretentiousness, and its sincere struggle to get to the heart of the endlessly fascinating Thomas myth — one with contemporary resonances, in its take on celebrity — finally makes the film as rewarding as it is uncomfortable, as long as you’re prepared to make the considerable effort to take it on its own terms.

On the day in question, Thomas downs his first double scotch at 9 a.m. and then downs seventeen more. He’s on a lengthy tour of U.S. colleges on which he has generally had rows of beaming, worshipful university students staring up at him, presumably understanding very little of what he says. Accompanying him in the bar are a couple of drunks, Teddy and Felix (Mike Paterson and Guy Sprung) and the barman, Carlos (Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro, one of Latin America's higher-profile international actors), whose key role in things will become clear only much later on.

The action moves beyond the bar into other scenarios, supplying a range of perspectives on this troubled, complex and apparently bloody annoying man. There is, for example, an ongoing mock TV interview in which the highly strung tour organizer and Thomas acolyte Brinnin (Tony Hale) and others offer their opinions of him. There is his doctor, the appallingly snide and superior Dr. Felton (John Malkovich), who gives Thomas himself a run for his money as a case study of clinical disturbance. Dr. Felton’s presence in the film, most memorable for a darkly comic post-mortem scene, perhaps signals a somewhat forbidding over-intellectualization in the project: he’s there to raise the issue that even a genius is just a putrid, dead body in the end (and if you'd never heard of “fecal vomiting” before, Dominion will set you right.)

Less a biopic than an attempt to recreate onscreen the messy contents of Thomas’ mind, Bernstein’s follow-up to Decoding Annie Parker tackles the same biographical moments as Celyn Jones’ altogether more conventional Set Fire to the Stars. The messiness of the mind here becomes a certain messiness of the script, with viewers yanked somewhat haphazardly between memory, imagination and surmise — sometimes Bernstein’s, sometimes Thomas’ — without any real build up of emotional steam to accompany it. Rather too schematically, while the White Horse sequences and others are shot in soft black-and-white, the memories of happy times — together with Caitlin on the beach, of the boy Thomas running across a snowy Welsh field, repeatedly — are brightly colored.

As a portrait of a dangerously destructive (and self-destructive) solipsist, Dominion is terrific. But not everyone is happy about spending 101 minutes in the company of a destructive solipsist, however witty and perceptive he may be (and in this very wordy film, there is indeed plenty of wit and perception.) Ifans, looking less the part than Jones, plays it for excess in a performance of spitting, aggressive and exhausting viscerality, often captured by Antal Steinbach’s camera in unforgiving close-up. 

We look on in appalled fascination, seeing Thomas’ pain and maybe even feeling it, but we are not invited to understand it. For us to find sympathy for such a monster, it’s not enough to nail up his supposed genius and hope we respond positively. (That’s what Thomas himself did, and look where it got him.) The script has to make it quite clear that behind the mask of bravado, Thomas was a frail creature, too. This frailty is felt too rarely in Dominion, and our sympathies remain largely with his victims.

A complex blend of resilience and fragility, Caitlin is well-played by Romola Garai as Thomas' interestingly tough but brittle nearest victim, and her voiceovers as she desperately writes letters begging Thomas for money are ironically amongst the film’s most darkly humorous. Hale can do little with the pathetically worshipful Brinnin, but Zosia Mamet as Penny, dispatched to rescue Thomas from the White Horse, is a wonderful innocent victim of the Thomas myth.

Like Penny, all of the characters but one are prepared to assume Thomas’ genius and thus make all due allowances for his behavior which becomes, after around the twelfth double scotch, morally appalling. And there’s the sense that even as it dismantles the legend, the script itself is secretly as seduced by Thomas' language as any of the characters are.

This is clear, for example in the way that Thomas speaks: Interestingly, although he performs his poetry from notes, when he talks he's always reciting, the words tumbling from his drunken lips in perfectly formed (though not always comprehensible) aphorisms, just the way poets are supposed to. “When we name something, we change the essence of what it is” is one elegant example of many, but the fact that he is rarely out of recital mode makes Thomas, as a character, rather hard for the viewer to access behind his protective wall of words.

Of course, Dominion has a duty to do well by Thomas the poet and magnificent orator, and this it does superbly, with a little extra echo on the voice and sometimes a little music behind it to enrich that famously rich, fruity voice as it delivers a kind of selected highlights of the poetry, including liberal helpings of Under Milk Wood and A Child's Christmas in Wales — though space is made too for W.B. Yeats' magnificent "The Second Coming."

Venue: Rio de Janeiro Film Festival
Production companies: Dominion Productions, Film Colony
Cast: Rhys Ifans, Romola Garai, Rodrigo Santoro, John Malkovich, Zosia Mamet, Tony Hale
Director-screenwriter: Steven Bernstein
Producers: Richard N. Gladstein, Nolan McDonald, John Malkovich
Executive producers: Chris Anjema, Michelle Anjema, Deanna Bartuccio, Mac Blair, Wendy Demerchant-Boone, Jeremy Ferdman, Sohrab Lutchmedial, Julie Snyder
Director of photography: Antal Steinbach
Production designer: Sylvain Gingras
Costume designer: Molly Maginnis
Editor: Adam Bernstein, Chris Gil, Zimo Huang
Composer: Steven Bramson
Casting director: Allison Estrin
Sales: Dominion

Not rated, 101 minutes