Dom Hemingway contains plenty of thoughtful comedic performances and general ideas that are engaging enough to make one forget that the film itself isn’t all that great. It feels like a pitch for an entire season of a television series condensed to just over 90 minutes, and while the gruff misanthrope at its centre would certainly be worth following in a long form setting, the truncated feeling of everything does the material a pretty big disservice. It has too much going for it to fail completely, but it also doesn’t know what to do with what it has.
Recently released from prison, a career criminal and safecracker who has desperately let himself go physically and mentally (Jude Law) is faced with getting his life in order. He reunites with his one-handed best friend (Richard E. Grant). He initially tries to get compensated for taking the fall on a botched job from a crazed Russian money man (Demian Bichir). When that fails, he tries to find a way back into the safecracking game and looks to make up for lost time with the daughter he never got to see grow up (played by Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke).
To say that writer and director Richard Shepard’s film peaks early is a bit of a sad understatement. The film never measures up to its opening two minutes where in one lengthy, unbroken take an imprisoned Dom begins a Last Tango in Paris inspired diatribe about the virtues of his penis. It’s a bold, bracing, hilarious, and well crafted introduction to a character who’s about to have a reckoning with the depths of his own ego and depravity. It’s an exceptional opening in every respect that can only serve to show how the rest of the film pales in comparison.
From that point on the film becomes restless and episodic instead of focused. It’s an interesting gambit to have a film contain a game changing twist as early on as Shepard attempts, but the movie that follows collapses under the weight of having simply too much that it wants to accomplish with the character. The “feel good” familial drama and Dom’s journey of acceptance feels underserved (giving Clarke little more than simply being a mother and just being there as something that exists) and often runs aground of Dom’s desire to make amends and work for a new school gangsta (played wonderfully by Attack the Block villain Jumayn Hunter). The two elements never really meet in any satisfying kind of way, and Shepard’s method of storytelling starts to feel like individual episodes of something larger that have been pared down to their essence without quite working together when there’s no greater explanation for why anything is the way it is. Since Shepard (The Hunting Party, The Matador) is also a TV vet, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear if this was an idea for something much longer that never got picked up. He’s even directing with a bit more of a small screen style instead of something all that cinematic.
Law does a perfect job of picking up the slack, though, always staying on point and never allowing Hemingway to ever seem capable of a full on epiphany or redemption. He’s a loud, boorish, swaggering dickhead with Lemmy Kilmister’s facial hair, a gold tooth, and an accent straight from the streets. To watch the former pretty boy revel in outlandishly silly and grotesque behaviour is such a trip because he looks like he’s having so much fun doing it. He seems to have a better understanding of where the character should be going than Shepard does. He also plays very nicely alongside an almost unwaveringly deadpan Grant who seems to be having just as much fun playing Dom’s slightly left of centre straight man.
Dom Hemingway is the rare example of a film I wish was longer because it just doesn’t work in only 90 minutes. There’s a lot that feels unnecessarily missing, short changed and disjointed, and yet it doesn’t quite feel like something that was tampered with in an editing room, but rather at the script stage. It looks and feels like something that would kill as a five or six episode miniseries for the BBC, but as a film it’s disappointing.