I’m not going to stop stating it. I’ll state what I want to state in whatever state I want to. Fuck you!
(SPOILERS) It’s easy to make bad British crime movies, particular ones that also try to do the funny. They can end up seeming like lads’ days out. Guy Ritchie cornered this market back in the late ‘90s, in a mostly quite poor post-Tarantino glut. His technically elaborate slices of cockney mayhem followed a similar wannabe hard man course (from a posh boy) as Tarantino during his inadvisable bouts of attempting to show he was a tough as his characters. In their obsession with showing how cool they were, these movies often lacked much beneath their veneer and posturing. Not that substance is essential; attitude is a reasonable-enough aspiration, the first or second time round. But if it drives the engine, character and story inevitably lose out. And their makers end up looking juvenile. Richard Shepard’s latest film succeeds in being cool, very funny and surprisingly affecting. In this respect, it’s not dissimilar to his earlier, also very good and under-appreciated, The Matador.
The mixture of comedy and pathos is a difficult juggling act, and it requires a strong authorial voice to carry it. The recent Filth lived up to its name on many levels, but couldn’t quite marry its aspirations with a steady guiding hand. In contrast, Sexy Beast, now something of a British crime movie legend thanks to the indelible performance of Ben Kingsley, is narratively less certain but has a guiding hand so steady and certain in Jonathan Glazer that the cracks are papered over with finesse. That film, like Dom Hemingway, features a safecracker as the central character (a favourite movie criminal profession) and a shift of focus following midpoint carnage.
The difference is, Sexy Beast retreats from its show-stopping showdown into something more run-of-the-mill and thus slightly disappointing. Dom changes direction completely, and those expecting it to stay true to its crime movie furnishings will no doubt come away put out. But I found it a refreshing, unexpected decision, one that adds all-important heart and purpose without seeming glib and without the feeling that it has lurched onto another track because it doesn’t know what to do with itself. On the contrary the whole movie is revealed to be about Dom Hemingway, past his prime and strutting a persona instead of a rounded person, and what he really values as opposed to what he thought he values.
I don’t think Shepard is quite up on a level with the McDonagh brothers (In Bruges, The Guard, Seven Psychopaths), but his writing and direction are highly distinctive and he imbues his characters with a warmth absent from many who dabble in this genre. And, while it is no criteria for success, he knows the value of telling a story concisely. In an era when the length of a movie is seen as some kind of indicator of whether it is any good (so it must be about two hours, and anything less probably means there’s something amiss), his pictures clock in closer to the 90-minute mark. Yet that feels exactly like the right length for them.
The premise is straightforward; Dom is released from prison after a 12-year stretch. He didn’t snitch, so he expects compensation This results in a trip to the South of France with his old cohort Dickie (Richard E. Grant) where they meet old his boss, who just happens to be “one of most dangerous men in all of Europe” (Demian Bichir as Monsieur Fontaine). If this scenario has a passing flavour of the exotic encounter between Ray Winstone and Kingsley in Sexy Beast, it reveals itself as something else entirely. Both primo hard men die, but Dom hasn’t inveigled into one last heist. When it comes, his safe cracking moment is an expertly executed set piece of humour and tension. Yet it is only there to reconfirm that Dom has to make amends with his family. And it’s this aspect that will either make or break the movie, depending on expectations and how satisfying you find Dom’s change of heart.
If Shepard comes up short anywhere, it’s that his female characters are (intentionally?) cyphers; inserted to signal shifts in direction for Dom. Paolina (Madalina Ghenea) is lusted after by Dom, predicating his verbal meltdown in which he insults Fontaine. She also becomes his nemesis, and so facilitates his shift in values when she makes off with his money. Melody (Rome’s Kerry Condon) is the sage on whom Dom reluctantly administers CPR, rewarding him with the promise that “good luck will shine down on you when you least expect it and most need it”. Later she returns at an opportune moment, to all but wave a magic wand for a despairing Dom. Asked what he most wants, Dom blurts out his money, before admitting that it is really his daughter’s forgiveness (“Just by picking her, you’ve already shown that the pendulum of luck is swinging your way”). So it’s appropriate that, when Dom encounters Paolina again, he doesn’t really intend to make good on his threat to kill her; he has different priorities, even if the swiped ring is a nice (unnecessary) consolation prize.
As for daughter Evelyn (Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke, looking almost ordinary without her blonde locks), Clarke gets to show off her singing voice, but there’s no added dimension to being told he was a bad dad (which predictably means we sympathise more with Dom than her). Ineed, the scenes between Dom and her boyfriend Hugh (Utopia’s Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) are more memorable for Dom’s clumsy prejudices. That doesn’t mean his change of heart isn’t felt, it’s just that Evelyn isn’t so much a character as symbol.
I’ll admit I wasn’t sure Dom Hemingway was going to work for me, what with the first scene introducing us to Dom’s macho bravura (“Study my cock”) while a member of prison staff is servicing his member. I’ve been more than convinced of Jude Law’s redefinition as a fine actor over the past few years, just as he has hit middle age and started losing his hair. He’s playing older here (I think), and his hirsute mutton-chopped visage and antique suits give him an out-of-time flavour. As if he should have been knocking about up busting open safes during the ‘70s, even though he’s much much too young. But I was given pause by Law doing his best Ray Winstone; he may not be so pretty any more, but he’s never really been anyone’s idea of bruiser potential.
It’s not until he falls in with Dickie Black (Grant giving it some like Withnail never went away) that Dom begins to click. The fish out of water, man out of time thing could have been overdone (no smoking in pubs?) but it works because Dom is defined by his idea that he is someone (“I AM DOM HEMINGWAY” he shouts as he drunkenly speeds towards the accident that redefines him) and a code of honour that few in the next generation share (“I played by the rules” he complains at one point). The affectation of Law and his eccentric dialogue takes hold, and his heightened demeanour becomes a pleasure to watch and hear.
Dom is coarse, crude and vulgar with a hint of poetry. His extensive vocabulary is at odds with his intelligence and demeanour; he’s a relatively simple man with big anger issues, but you add in a delicious turn of phrase and Dom becomes a character to savour. He is “a peasant at heart, a petty serf” who once played the apothecary in Romeo and Juliet. The mock-Shakespearean language is a joy, and you’d never guess Shepard’s origins are transatlantic. “Misfortune befell me,” opines Dom, as if he is about to break into a tragic ode. But then he can flip completely, intoning, “That’s the fucker who I am” with savage menace. Law relishes the opportunity to deliver these lines, knowing full well this sort of thing doesn’t come along too often (“After much heartbreak and ruin the pendulum of luck has finally swung back to Dom Hemingway and I intend to enjoy each of his fickle pleasures, whether it lasts for a minute or even a lifetime”). As much as the mid-point gear change will qualify your enjoyment, so will Shepard’s use of language since realism is not high on his list of priorities.
The other key ingredient in the success of Dom Hemingway is Reg, in a role written for him by Shepard. It wouldn’t be wholly unfair to suggest Grant hasn’t been especially well-catered for in his post-Withnail & I career. The particular brand of splenetic superiority found in his collaborations with Bruce Robinson is a perfect fit for his natural OTT-ness. Cast without due care or attention his presence can seem under-nourished, with characters that fail to support his energy. Alternately, he can come across as plain hammy or lacking in register. How many memorable roles has he had over the last two decades? Whether it’s by choice or just that no one can write for him, it’s probably true to say that most people love him in Withnail but are indifferent to him in almost everything else. The picture’s cult success served him for a period in Hollywood (see With Nails) but this is the first movie since that truly serves his personality.
It’s curious that, say Terry-Thomas is rightly celebrated for his magnificent comedy turns as a cad and a scoundrel in film after film, but there appears to be resistance to Grant cutting loose doing what he’s best at; box him in and you reduce his capacity for inimitable performances. The only difference between Grant and Law enjoying Shepard’s lines is that Reg makes it look so easy. There are too many choice passages to quote, but imagine Withnail uttering the following and you get the general idea; “He was raised in an orphanage and kills people for a living. Of course he has a well-stocked bar”, “You’ve got to beg forgiveness of him. You’ve got to put on trousers”, “I ain’t burying your body out here. Because I’m too fucking old and I didn’t bring the right shoes”. Then there’s this exchange:
Dickie: I’m just stating what I’m stating.
Dom: Stop stating what you’re stating.
Dickie: I’m not going to stop stating it. I’ll state what I want to state in whatever state I want to. Fuck you!
The side effect of Dickie’s presence as a supporting character is that he bows out with insufficient notice; the movie is, after all, about the titular man himself. But the chemistry between Law and Grant is effortless, and their repartee is a delight. Quirks such as Dickie’s false hand (“I thought it was a fashion statement. You always were a bit of a clothes fan,” says a baffled Dom) and that familiar Grant cackle of laughter when Dom cracks Lestor’s safe (“You did it, Dom! You did it!”) mask the fact that Dickie is the more circumspect and much less firebrand of the duo. Repeatedly Dom oversteps the mark and Dickie must attempt to salvage the situation or bring him back down; in that sense he’s more I than Withnail. Love the Grant. Great to have him back and remember why he made such an impression in the first place.
Elsewhere, Bichir brings just the necessary quotient of tempered menace to Mr Big. The scene in which Dom rants apoplectically is sort of the inverse of Kingsley in Sexy Beast; it’s Ivan (“Ivan-a”) who just watches him raging and you’re unsure quite what will happen next. That he doesn’t attempt to kill Dom is is unexpected (“I do owe you, Dom”), instead forcing his guest to eat crow, or rather “The rabbit is getting cold” (earlier Dom has been emphatic; “Rabbits are pets. I don’t eat pets”).
Pets are also central to Dom’s second altercation with a (potential) employer. Lestor (Jumayn Hunter) has never forgiven Dom for what he did to the family feline (“You’re a killer of cats, Dom. And I want nothing to do with you”) so it should probably be little surprise that he fixes the safecracking challenge, concealing one safe within another. The price will be the severing of Dom’s prize appendage (thus neatly paying off the opening posing). Where Dom’s outburst at Fontaine sees us wincing with Dickie, so his grandstanding 10-minute try-out has us laughing and cheering along with his best mate (“And that, my friends, is how you open a safe”). The scene emphasises Melody’s ministrations that higher forces are saving Dom from himself; he must have known severing the safe alarm would bring the security team running, but he can’t have foreseen Lestor’s intentions or he would never have shown up. Making their arrival at that crucial moment more than fortuitous.
Richard Shepard has been making movies for more than two decades, but I’ve only seen a couple of them (I recall the release of The Linguini Incident and electing to give it a miss, even though I’m usually an easy sell for a Bowie turn). I loved The Matador, though, and this is even better. As with that picture Shepard pulls off a deft combination of the funny and the threatening, making left-field turns in direction that should but don’t seem out of place. Dom Hemingway may not have been greeted with acclaim, but if there’s any justice this is a cult movie in waiting.