Arts movie review

Crime never sounded so posh

Stylish, darkly comedic gangster tale

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Jude Law stars in Richard Shepard’s black comedy Dom Hemingway.
Courtesy of fox searchlight pictures


Dom Hemingway

Directed by Richard Shepard

Starring Jude Law, Richard E. Grant, and Demián Bichir

Rated R

Now Playing

Dom Hemingway, written and directed by Richard Shepard, stars Jude Law as the title character, a career criminal on parole after 12 years in prison. Dom is vengefully determined to claim what he thinks is rightfully his, and heads to the grand French villa of a powerful crime boss (Demián Bichir), hoping for a big payday as remuneration for his years of silence while in prison. Along the way, Dom gets himself in and out of trouble — most of it comical and amusingly mischievous, some of it brutal and truly menacing, and almost all of it involving copious amounts of drink and drugs — before turning his efforts to a reconciliation with his estranged daughter, and perhaps, a slim chance at redemption.

The performance, which Law attacks with ferocity, is operatic in magnitude, simultaneously shocking, magnetic, sympathetic, and entirely repulsive. Dom may be a low-life, but within the story, he is an antihero of Shakespearean proportions, as if all order in the great chain of being hinges on the outcome of his story.

And yet the film’s theatricality remains ambiguous enough that you’re never quite sure whether you’re watching a comedy of errors or a Greek tragedy. While the plot moves on and supporting characters come and go, the title character comprises the core of the film.

A lot of the movie — even the language — is heavily stylized, and Dom’s vocabulary and nimble wordplay are so uncharacteristic of a hapless two-bit safecracker as to mark him as something extraordinary. The dialogue doesn’t ring false, but appreciating it requires accepting that the verbal exchanges are as much an aesthetic dimension of the movie as the outrageous, and very effective, set design.

The words themselves, rather than their content, are the focus. Humor, shock, rage, and elation flow through the cacophonous, frenzied pacing of Dom’s erudite monologues, which Law delivers with dexterity and commitment.

Yet despite his unique quirks, Dom seems immediately familiar. He indeed is something of an mélange of characters you’ve seen before. While the film does not explicitly cite its inspirations, the title character owes a lot to his English cinematic predecessors, including Guy Ritchie’s gangsters (in films like Snatch and RocknRolla); Tom Hardy’s incarnation of “the most violent prisoner in Britain” in the spectacular Bronson; and tragi-comic failures from irreverent classics like Withnail and I, a connection embodied by the casting of Richard E. Grant as Dickie, Dom’s loyal best friend.

What these films all have in common with Dom Hemingway is that they all ultimately meditate on the same anxiety by pointing to the precariousness of maintaining restraint, civility, and social order in modern-day England.

The narrative positions itself at this tenuous divide between chaos and order, and then just sort of sits there laughing. Whether you do too rests on your ability to accept Dom for all his improbable contradictions and care about the things he does. If you can, you’ll have a great time like I did. If not, the film will buckle under the strain of its jarring tonal shifts as Dom’s pursuits turn from the unabashedly reckless to the serious, and the stark realism of grey urban London replaces the manic Technicolor opening sequences. Either way, the visual and verbal sugar-rush may leave you dizzied and dazed, overwhelmed beyond satisfaction yet somehow still hungry for something a bit more substantive.