Around the time of Danny Boyle's 1996 film Trainspotting there was an explosion of British acting talent. Two of the film's stars, Ewan McGregor and Jonny Lee Miller, banded together with a group of friends including Jude Law and his then wife Sadie Frost to form a company called Natural Nylon, through which they could produce their own movies. Law, smart, savvy and surprisingly serious for his age, and Frost, who was almost eight years older, were very much the driving force behind the company.
"I liked the idea of the challenge and playing someone similar to my age who had gone to seed and let everything go spiritually, physically and mentally."
Natural Nylon's productions included David Cronenberg's eXistenZ (1999) starring Law, Nora (2000) with McGregor, and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) where Law played an Errol Flynn-style hero, after which Martin Scorsese cast him as the Tasmanian swashbuckler in The Aviator (2004).
Law, Frost and Miller (Law's childhood best friend from the National Youth Music Theatre, who is currently Sherlock Holmes on television's Elementary) all starred in Love, Honour and Obey (2000), a gangster spoof made two years after Guy Ritchie's trend-setting Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Love, Honour and Obey, however, failed to gel with audiences.
Law had already come to attention in three 1997 movies, as the inebriated paraplegic in Andrew Niccol's futuristic thriller Gattaca, as Lord Bosie, the object of Stephen Fry's desire in the Oscar Wilde story, Wilde, and as a gay hustler in Clint Eastwood's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Though it was his portrayal as the good-looking golden boy, Dickie Greenleaf, in Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley that would pave his way to Hollywood fame and lead to movies like Steven Spielberg's A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Sam Mendes' Road to Perdition, and his re-teaming with Minghella on Cold Mountain. He was Oscar-nominated for best supporting actor in Ripley and for best actor in Cold Mountain.
“Law is so charming you almost feel sorry for his being one of the most handsome men on the planet,” one interviewer wrote around the time. Yet it wasn't the kind of label that sat too well with the ambitious, highly driven actor. Indeed, in his youth, Law's looks were distracting. When I first saw him he was on stage opposite Kathleen Turner in the 1995 Broadway production of Indiscretions, Vanity Fair noted the rise of opera glasses to ogle at his nude form.
Now at 40, Law is still a handsome man, though with his receding hairline and more muscular, filled out frame, he looks mature, even if he hasn't lost any of that boyish drive. Over the years, he has honed his acting skills treading the boards in stage productions like Hamlet – when the 2009 West End production moved to Broadway he was nominated for a Tony. He now brings a quasi-Shakespearean quality to his new movie Dom Hemingway, which follows an ageing notorious London safecracker and harks back to Love, Honour and Obey.
If Law had been wanting to leave his mark in the London gangster genre, he does right from the get-go in his new film, as in the opening scene his nude imprisoned Dom extols the virtues of his male member in a graphic monologue which foreshadows his penis as an important plot point later on. Law became a willing collaborator with his American writer-director Richard Shepard (Matador) on the film.
“This is an independent film made in the spirit as an independent film should be made,” explains Law. “Films like this shouldn't slip under the radar, in today's climate more than ever. A film this size is fighting against films 200 times bigger.”
Shepard allowed his star to take front and centre stage, unlike in Guy Ritchie's two Sherlock Holmes movies where Law has been the sidekick to Robert Downey Jr. (Downey will only commit if there's a strong script for a third instalment in the franchise, which has already netted $1 billion.) It's Richard E. Grant who gets the rough end of the stick here as Dom's best friend Dickie – even if he was the first actor to be cast by Shepard, a fan of Withnail & I.
Playing such an out-and-out lead was “intimidating at first,” Law admits, “but I liked the idea of the challenge and playing someone similar to my age who had gone to seed and let everything go spiritually, physically and mentally. One of my requests to Richard was that if I do the film, to shoot that opening scene first just to set the bar high for the rest of the film.”
Nude but framed below the belt in a single take, Law is impressive with this first of his many monologues throughout the film.
“I thought of them as rants as opposed to monologues,” he says. “I think at the heart of this seedy and bespoiled man is this poet. He's sort of Falstaff in a modern guise, he has a brilliant turn of phrase, he has a wonderful ability to riff off ideas, much of which he punctuates with the fuck word in various different guises and many other words, the C's and B's and all sorts of other things that are flying around.”
“What the film deals with is the nature of friendship, that there are people that you know are absolutely intolerable and impossible and yet you still stand up for them."
We follow Dom as he leaves prison after his 12-year stint and is reunited with Dickie. The illustrious pair enjoys a three-day London binge before venturing to rural France so Dom can receive compensation for taking the fall for Russian mob boss Mr. Fontaine (Mexican actor Demián Bichir). This pivotal confrontation at Fontaine's luxury villa is the kind of scene that actors relish.
“The movie is essentially a character-driven piece,” notes the similarly lively Shepard. “We had a lot of fun talking about it, rehearsing about it, drinking about it and being in this world.”
Unfortunately, things don't quite work out for Dom, even if Dickie is there through thick and thin.
“The plans that both of these characters have almost never come to fruition,” explains Grant, “so they're upwardly failing all the time, which makes them funny and also humane and vulnerable. Hopefully you get all that from the writing, and then if you work with Jude, it happens very fast.”
“We only knew each other a little beforehand and had a fantastic time making the film,” says Law. “We didn't prepare an awful lot, we talked a bit about their past, but just the fact that Richard had asked me to play Dom and Richard Dickie said an awful lot about the characters already.”
Grant: “What the film deals with is the nature of friendship, that there are people that you know are absolutely intolerable and impossible and yet you still stand up for them. I've been in a situation where somebody said, 'I think the person's a total asshole'. And you go, 'Yeah, I see that you feel he's an asshole, but I love this person. I've known them for 25 years. So just keep it away from me.' And I think that is part of the relationship because the abuse that Dickie suffers from Dom is legion and yet he remains loyal to him. I understand that; I think that's how human beings are.”
Ultimately, Dom returns to London and attempts to make up with his long lost daughter, Evelyn, played by Games of Thrones' rising young star Emilia Clarke, who asserts a strong presence.
“The first thing that I got from working with Jude was his energy, it's infectious,” Clarke admits. “He keeps you on your toes. But it's rare that you read a script that's so rich. It was great to get to play someone who's so incredibly angry, but resilient, and she's still capable of love for Dom.”
Law had insisted on being at the auditions with Shepard and knew that Clarke was perfect for the role. They called her back immediately.
“It was a very good day,” Clarke recalls. “If Jude Law could always tell me I got the part, that would be a great thing!”
Watch 'Dom Hemingway'
Saturday 22 August, 10:35pm on SBS World Movies
Monday 24 August, 1:45am on SBS World Movies
Genre: Crime, Comedy, Drama
Director: Richard Shepard
Starring: Jude Law, Richard E. Grant, Emilia Clarke
Now streaming at SBS On Demand: