Enter the Void
By Julien Allen

Dom Hemingway
Dir. Richard Shepard, U.K., Fox Searchlight

To this writer, the expression “Jude Law vehicle” is—like “corporate restructuring” or “Tom Sizemore jacuzzi party”—portentous and terrifying. Now the wrong end of forty and considering himself to have suffered for too long in limited roles (on account of his preternatural beauty, which must have been tough going for him), Law has decided to concentrate on film parts that—well, let's just be polite and say that they better demonstrate the breadth of his talent. The late Anthony Minghella once said of Jude Law that he was “a character actor in a beautiful body”—an observation whose accuracy reposes on the fact that it doesn’t say whether he’s any good. With Dom Hemingway, a film built entirely around the titular central performance, we finally get a chance to see everything Jude Law has got—almost literally, for one sequence in an olive grove in southern France puts his now markedly less beautiful (but still well above the national average) body on display as well. To call it a “stand-out” sequence would be to imply, misleadingly, some level of quality to any aspect of this film, but as a cinematic statement (“Look at my arse—well . . . how do you like me now?") it is completely emblematic of what Law wanted to achieve as a whole. And the makers of this third-rate, tawdry pile of nonsense are no doubt delighted that such an A-lister took a shine to their script, because otherwise it would surely never have seen the light of day. Even Danny Dyer would have passed.

Dom would no doubt see himself as one of a mythical police line-up of beloved British gangsters such as Pinkie from Brighton Rock, Harold Shand from The Long Good Friday, Gal from Sexy Beast, and even real-life hoodlums like the Kray twins and “Great Train robber” Ronnie Biggs (the latter a tabloid hero who passed away last year on a wave of folksy sentimentality). The subtle distinction here is that those characters actually possessed a certain identifiable charm, which an antihero traditionally requires in order to carry a film. More recently, Nicolas Winding Refn's Bronson (a film which to its eternal discredit, Dom Hemingway is palpably trying to emulate) mixed reality and fiction, and in so doing transformed a murderous psychopath with no redeeming features whatsoever into a cult cinematic figure. Dom Hemingway opens with one of many monologues to camera (an aspect of this role—constant yabbering—that apparently appealed to Law) introducing Dom as an eccentric jailbird, screaming an ode to his own penis ("My cock could save Somali children from starving!") whilst being fellated by a fellow inmate. He finishes with a smirking, insincere apology for the lack of any warning of his ejaculation. And then, hard as this might be to believe, it all goes downhill from there.

Dom is released from custody, violently beats his divorced wife's new husband to a bloody pulp (in a humorous manner of course: "I should fucking kill you, but I fancy a pint instead"; later: “I made Bolognese out of his face”) then goes on a three day coke-‘n’-hookers bender before heading with his partner to France, to claim his reward from the underworld big shot whose bacon he saved by accepting a jail sentence in return for his silence. It is during this first half of the film that the audience is forced to swallow a huge portion of Dom’s verbal repertoire, presented by the makers as choice, Tarantino-esque cuts but actually constituting tone-deaf, meaningless offal. It includes reductive imagery that doesn’t work (of the French countryside: "It's like a barmaid's snatch on Cup Final Day"); ideas that alliterate rather than make sense ("He's gonna make a Bellini out of my balls."); and just plain stupidity (“This is the best right hand in the business. I could finger a woman from five feet away"—surely that just means he has an implausibly long arm?). This is just the printable stuff, I'll spare you the pedophilia jokes and knockabout racism. It’s all spat out with glee and complete conviction by Law, who inhabits the part wholly, as if he were aggressively claiming full responsibility for the results.

This may seem like nit-picking over dialogue, but the entire appeal of the film—whose plot, if written on the back of a postage stamp, would leave room for a sequel—relies on what Law says. And what he says is, almost without exception, dreadful. In Dom Hemingway’s defense, perhaps it's deliberately ghastly, so that the audience is challenged to feel something for this monster later in the film, when he's on his uppers and decides to seek out his lost daughter? (Cue the subtle, sudden soundtrack cut from twangy rock to soft piano music, when he takes a photo of Miss Hemingway out of his wallet.) Or perhaps it's heavily improvised, for veracity: surely real gangsters who think they’re orators talk such inconsequential garbage as well? But if either explanation is valid, firstly the film is having its cake and eating it too—knowing profanity and smart-arsery on this level will appeal to morons and giving Law's character a "happy ending" despite his not having redeemed himself one bit. Secondly, what possible appeal could that leave for sentient beings, forced to sit through this torrent of effluent? The film flirts with atonement for Dom as he tries to reconcile with his daughter and grandson, but this arc falls terribly flat before being abandoned entirely—as if there’s just no stopping the irrepressible Dom Hemingway! A peculiar Wes Anderson-esque visual moment featuring Dom’s black grandson sitting next to him in silence, both facing the camera, is not—by any stretch of the human imagination—earned.

Law is supported in this reverse vanity project by Mexican actor Demiàn Bichir as the Boss (what a colossal come-down for Bichir after Machete Kills) and partner Richard E. Grant, whose basset-hound visage of despair can only betray a stunned realization of how far independent British film comedy seems to have fallen (pace Ben Wheatley) since Withnail & I. As for Law’s motivation (he says in interview that Dom is “an open pore” by contrast to his earlier roles, where he had to hold everything in), I was reminded of Robert Altman doing press for The Player. Altman explained that Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts had agreed to feature because they were actually victims of the Hollywood machine his film was critiquing, on the basis that they only got the highly paid, top-billed, lead roles, which asphyxiated their creative abilities. Law is one of a rump of perfectly serviceable but hardly awe-inspiring British actors (yes, you too, Ewan McGregor) who, in a succession of frankly baffling Hollywood casting decisions over the years have been undeservedly taking food from American actors' mouths off the back of their physiques and accents that erroneously imply some sort of classical acting background. While A.I. and The Talented Mr Ripley required Law to look like and be himself, respectively (which he proved more than capable of), the recent Side Effects and Anna Karenina amply demonstrate Rex Reed's aphorism about Roger Moore that there's nothing like a couple of decades of movie stardom to teach one the rudiments of acting. Wholeheartedly committed as he clearly is, Law’s performance is so liberated that it actually demonstrates a deep lack of interest in the effect it is achieving, like a reporter who splurges onto the paper and arrogantly refuses to read back over it to see if it makes sense. Primal acting of this kind is only given to the very greatest (Kinski, Dean, Mifune, Michel Simon) not Dior models with connections.

After all this empty showboating, we’re left with a crime caper with no crime (he’s a safecracker but there’s no heist), a comedy with no laughs, a character study with no likeable or believable characters—a thundering, tedious failure whose offensiveness is a side issue. When a film’s violent, eye-watering misogyny is the least of its problems, you know you’re in a very special place. The only window Dom Hemingway opens is one that shows our world as a place where films like these are being financed and made . . . and no one seems to mind. If only at the end they’d cut to Withnail’s final speech, borrowed from a certain role Law himself has played, improbably, on Broadway: “The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet to me . . . what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me.” It might all have made some sort of sense.