Hemingway’s Ghost

Caught up with another film on Netflix that I had missed at the Cinema: Dom Hemingway. Please keep in mind major plot spoilers will follow. Dom Hemingway is a 2013 film written and directed by Richard Shepard. Jude Law takes the title role of Dom, a cockney villain having finished a 12-year stint for an undisclosed crime. Co-stars include Richard E Grant as Dickie Black, Dom’s sartorially preoccupied best friend; and Emilia Clarke as Evelyn Hemingway, Dom’s daughter who has not had contact with Dom since he went in to prison.

Dom has maintained his silence throughout his time in prison and is now looking to collect. On his discharge from prison he meets with old accomplice and friend Dickie who informs Dom that he has been invited to visit with their previous employer Mr Fontaine (Demian Bechir), a man “raised in a Russian convent who kills people for a living.” This involves a trip to France; a motif employed across British cinema to represent removal from the mores of society: in Foreign Parts the normal rules are suspended. Mr Fontaine is a dangerous criminal kingpin who plays by the same old school rules as Dom – even when Dom insults him, he recognises he owes Dom a debt so doesn’t have him killed in a ditch. Dom receives his reward but following a bacchanalian night and ill-advised drive loses it all after a predictable crash. Mr Fontaine dies and his paramour Paolina (Madalina Ghenea) makes off with Dom’s money. Dom must return to London, to reality.

Dom is a dinosaur at least in part because of his ‘code of ethics’ and his adherence to this puts him at continual risk. Dom is a scoundrel in the mould of the Lock Stock rogues, a philosophising cockney wide-boy who self-identifies as a ‘peasant’, a violent men with a penchant for poet and inadequate self-reflection. Later, Dom is trying to get work as a safe cracker from Lester (Jumayn Hunter), the son of a rival and someone who bears a grudge for Dom’s past misdeeds. It is all a lampoon, a rigged bet with Dom’s penis on the chopping block. Lester takes the time to explain to Dom that believing in a code in prison left him cheated and now outside it will cause him further loss. Only the timely arrival of the security services allows Dom and Dickie to escape intact.

The threat of emasculation is, unsurprisingly, a major one, but not just for the obvious reasons. The film opens with Dom a soliloquy about his penis and its many attributes while being fellated:

Dom’s code is identity to his masculinity; it is both his power and his peril, an uncontrollable ID that lands him in trouble with Mr Fontaine; he ‘wanks open a safe’ only to be caught gloating by Lester who has tricked with misdirection. Dom doesn’t just have a penis, he is his penis.

It is perhaps no surprise that the character shares a surname with the writer Ernest Hemingway, pioneer of a minimalist style of writing that has come to be associated with his ultra-masculine values. Dom isn’t a perfect cypher for the writer Hemingway’s style of masculinity (Dom doesn’t hunt, though he will eat what has been hunted) but much like Hemingway the author, there is a sense that someone like Dom, after twelve years away, is not a good fit for the world. The film’s soundtrack emphasizes this distemporality with the use of old songs. I fear many were a touch too old; twelve years ago was the time of Limp Bizkit, Eminem and Coldplay. This was perhaps done to emphasize the Britishness of this production, and British talent tends to be very, very middle-class. Still, Dom comes across as a man out of time, even in his own time.

The film isn’t quite trying to eulogize Dom, however. In a lot of ways, I felt Dom Hemingway had come to bury the maverick rogue of Britfilm, not to praise him. Dom’s wild appetites cause him to crash, his criminal past cost him his wife and family, his rages several times risk his life, as does his vanity. I came away with very much the sense that Dom Hemingway is the bookend to films like Lock, Stock… and Layer Cake that (re)introduced us to the (very lucrative) idea of lovable rogues on bumbling capers. Dom is the man at the end of that life, worn down and used up. The most powerful moments in the film come when he realises this: when he is running from Lester, when he is at his ex-wife Kathy’s grave. It is surprisingly unsentimental about those earlier films; Dom is shockingly, casually racist, an implicit critique of the all too often, all too white cast of those earlier films (which Dom Hemingway does not reproduce).

It holds a very British sensibility, particularly a British masculinity. Compared to Don Jon, the masculine identity of Dom Hemingway is immobile. There’s no sense in Dom Hemingway that Dom might have an epiphany and change; the only epiphany he can have is of who he is and how to come to terms with that. There is no modern masculine identity, only a backwards look at how things were and aren’t now. The scene where Dom, fresh from prison, lights up in a pub, illustrates this: smoking in pubs is a manly thing, but also a thing of the past. Dom, a relic, still lights up in defiance. There is an element within the film of longing for this, even as it acknowledges that it is a thing that is gone.

The film’s relationship to masculinity is a complicated one. Dom is aggressive and confrontational but nearly every time his braggadocio ends up with him in trouble. When he is humble things go better for him: this is replicated in his relationships with his daughter, with his employer, even with a woman whose life he saves. Furthermore, by the metric of provider and protector, Dom has failed as a man not in spite of his macho attitude, but because of it. He was not even able to contribute to the cost of Kathy’s burial, and she had divorced him before she died. He did not see Evelyn grow up, and she will not call him ‘Dad.’

However, I think a narrative strain of the film is not one in which Dom must change, but rather acknowledge the changed world. After his crash, rather than rush to get his money, Dom engages in a single act of heroism in saving the life of Melody (Kerry Condon), a girl brought in by Mr Fontaine to entertain Dom. She tells Dom that in saving her life, luck will come to him. Later on, he spots Melody in London and confronts her with the fact that his luck has been shit, but then confesses what he really wants is not money but to speak with his daughter. When Dom accepts his place in a chaotic universe, things start to go his way. It is important to keep in mind that Dom does not change but persists until the universe comes round to him. Evelyn softens to him and Dom gets to be properly acquainted with his grandson. Serendipity causes him to cross Paolina’s path once more. With intimidation and clever hands, he rides fate’s coat-tails as they turn to him.

Unfortunately, I think Jude Law was miscast for this role, which would have been a tough act for anyone. The lovable cockney rogue is a well tilled furrow, quoting cod philosophy as he gets his knuckles bloody, and repetition has made it commonplace. There are times where Law’s dialect sounds forced. When he is best are those moments where we see that the wide-boy mantle is slipping from Dom’s shoulders, where he is alone and in doubt. In silence I found Law’s Dom compelling, a portrait of physical dejection, but he never quite pulls off the physical menace. A scene where he is shouting at La Fontaine fell flat; it might have been intentional but it came across as not so much a man out of his depth but rather a man who had never done anything like this before. If I can engage in a spot of fantasy nepotism I actually found myself imagining a brother of mine in the role. There’s a certain snarl of intonation that Law lacked. It is in the final scene, across from Paolina, with his whispered threats in her ear, that Law truly attained menace.

Richard E Grant was very good as Dickie, used just enough to contrast with Dom. Dom invites himself into Dickie’s home in one scene, it is undeniable that Dickie, like Dom, is an end-point of one of the lads: the man of taste and culture. Much like Dom’s dreams of wealth and freedom, Dickie’s aspirations have really come to nothing. Grant is perfect in this role: arch, droll, a little bit cowardly, Dom’s staunch ally.

The film does replicate the usual Brit-flick issues of female representation. Women are possessions, ciphers, trophies, sibyls. His wife remarried but is always his ‘possession’; Melody appears to provide cryptic guidance and affirmation before disappearing; Paolina is an opportunistic thief. We get very little of fully realised characterisation for any of the women. Evelyn powerfully pricks Dom’s faltering swagger outside a club she has been performing at, but ultimately retrenches into tentative reconciliation. Granting more female agency would require a significant rethink and rewrite of the entire script.

As with many films, this one ends with the promise of hope and while I am not disappointed, I think it could there could have been a strong arc as the epilogue to the Brit-flick culture: Dom returns from the fairy-land of crime capers to a reality that does not acknowledge and indeed throws in to question his achievements, that the immediate gratification is not worth the consequences. For my viewing, Dom’s sorrow was more compelling than Dom’s triumph.

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