“I’ve got a peasant’s heart,” Dom Hemingway says. It’s a fair self-assessment for a British crook with no blue blood in his veins; he doesn’t carry an air of gentry or nobility about him. No, Dom Hemingway is an underclass degenerate all the way—the mannish demeanor, the criminal intellect, the sleazy clothes, all of it. And I mean underclass. Dom Hemingway is no working-class hero, he’s not even an anti-hero. He’s a fresh-out-of-jail, angry, crass, loudmouth safecracker with no prospects and no respect.
Now don’t get me wrong, there’s charm to writer/director Richard Shepard’s Dom Hemingway, a seedy and sordid bit of charm. A brawnier, brasher Jude Law plays title character Dom Hemingway, a crook coming off a 12-year bid for keeping quiet about his relationship with Spanish crime lord Ivan Fontana, played by former Weeds star Demian Bichir—Hollywood’s go to lawless Latino. Hemingway’s due for his loyalty, and Fontana intends to pay handsomely—hookers, cocaine, cash. But when a drunken car crash thwarts their deal and Fontana’s girl Paolina, a dead-eyed Mădălina Diana Ghenea, quietly walks away with the dough, Hemingway must crawl his way to salvation.
Loaded, broke, and defeated, Hemingway finds himself on the doorstep of his estranged daughter Evelyn, Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke, who’s welcoming is less than warm. His time away exacerbated tensions, heightened by the death of her mother, his ex-wife, Katherine whom we never see. This testifies to one of the major issue in the film, a lack of history. Opening on the verge of Dom’s release, the audience never learns the details of his crime or his relationship with Ivan Fontana. There are no flashbacks about his friendship with the desperate and uptight Dickie, a very funny Richard E. Grant (Withnail & I). Hemingway is rectifying an unknown past.
Existing only in the now, Hemingway’s forced to work for Lestor McGreevy Jr., heir to a London crime syndicate he once pissed off. There’s also the issue of Dom having murdered Jr.’s cat some years back. But the details go unknown, there are no verbal explorations or humorous interstitials to fill in the gaps. Instead, Shepard’s film lives and breathes just as Hemingway does, in the present. This is why Hemingway’s insatiable appetite for debauchery makes his disinterest for going straight plausible, but his desire to reconnect with his daughter far fetched. If Shepard made sense of Hemingway's history then his emotional complexities might've been believable.
But you have to give it to Shepard, with Dom Hemingway he crafts a detailed aesthetic and paced narrative more in sink with Ulu Grosbard’s Straight Time than anything Guy Ritchie did. The film may not fully deliver, but he meditates on what it means to be a lifetime lowlife rather than delivering a quick camera crime film. These ideas are explored further in Shepard’s commentary on the newly released Blu-ray version of the film and in the behind-the-scenes doc The Look of Dom Hemingway, dissecting Hemingway’s look as the sleaziest guy in the pub. It’s familiar ground for Shepard, who’s spent the majority of his career dissecting masculinity on the moral fringe, i.e. The Matador, Mercy.
Shepard distinguishes Dom Hemingway through a hyper-masculinity. Take for example the opening scene, Hemingway’s pontificating on the grandeur of prowess during a little jail cell coitus. Later, he’s pounding the teeth out of an old friend who bagged Hemingway’s ex-wife while he was in prison. Throughout the film, Hemingway aggressively reasserts his manhood through confrontation. His lack of security and mobility—i.e. no family, no job, no creature comforts—makes him feel vulnerable and weak, and if there’s one way Hemingway doesn’t want to be seen, it’s as weak. Right up through the end of the film, our leading man is confronting class and the new normal on every level—the ban on smoking in pubs, his daughter’s black boyfriend, his old age. The world moved on without Dom Hemingway, it might have been nice to see Dom move on with it.