×

Film Review: ‘Dominion’

Rhys Ifans rages against the dying of the light in a stagey and unconvincing biopic of the last, boozy days of Dylan Thomas' life.

Director:
Steven Bernstein
With:
Rhys Ifans, John Malkovich, Rodrigo Santoro, Romola Garai, Tony Hale, Zosia Mamet.

1 hour 46 minutes

The last days, drinks, and deliriums of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas get yet another airing in Steven Bernstein’s “Dominion,” a rather slipshod addition to Thomas’ screen canon, enlivened, if that’s the word, by a ranting, scotch-spittle-flecked Rhys Ifans in the central role.

It’s clear why Ifans (as well as Rodrigo Santoro as an improbable, Shakespeare-quoting, tango-dancing barman) and executive producer John Malkovich playing Thomas’ wolfishly amoral New York doctor, would jump at so verbose and monologue-heavy a script. It’s less clear why Bernstein would be inspired to write it, when not only does it add little new to the Thomas story, it actively avoids addressing the more intriguing theories about his death — such as that it may not have been directly due to alcohol after all. Instead cinematographer-turned-writer-director Bernstein, in his first film since his 2013 helming debut “Decoding Annie Parker,” doesn’t just print the legend, he invests it with further levels of swaggering, swigging mythology, that sadly add up to the impression that whatever else Thomas was — genius, charlatan, rogue — he was also a crashing bore.

Jumping around in chronology and using various glitchy cinematic techniques to portray Thomas’ different phases of life and states of mind, “Dominion” mostly takes place in black and white, during the fateful bender that Thomas himself enshrined as the reason he went comatose into the good night a few days later, when he claimed he had broken a record by drinking 18 straight whiskies. This outlandish assertion, which has been contradicted by witnesses, forms the guiding structure of Bernstein’s film, as Thomas (Ifans) takes to “naming” each one of his drinks. Number one is “Innocence,” two is “Enthusiasm,” three is “Hope,” four “Recalcitrance” and so on, each providing a prompt for a new phase of reminiscing, hallucinating, or grandiloquent speechifying to the patrons of New York’s White Horse Tavern.

Flashbacks to his time in Wales with equally bonkers wife Caitlin (Romola Garai) are in antiqued color. Additional flash-further-backs, to a boy running through a snowy Welsh woodland give us some clue as to which work Bernstein will choose to send the writer of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” out on. Those brief sequences are marred, however, by some low-grade filmmaking when what should be a gliding overhead judders, while the black-and-white New York exteriors are also unconvincing, with characters haloed against blurred backgrounds, as in a hasty PhotoShop job.

As Thomas counts up the shot glasses, friends and acolytes buzz around in the background. His much abused biographer Brinnin (unlikely MVP Tony Hale, turning in a touchingly human performance amid so much bluster) is frustrated with Thomas’ cavalier treatment of his manuscript, but also worried about the state of the American tour he’d organized, as well as of Thomas’ health. To that end, he has meetings with snooty physician Dr. Felton (Malkovich) for whom wry amusement seems to pass for a bedside manner.

Meanwhile, the shortchanged womenfolk of Thomas’ life are shortchanged once again, with Garai mostly either appearing as a frowsy hallucination in a milkmaid-style dress, or as a transatlantic scold reading her increasingly agitated letters to her neglectful husband aloud as … her … pen … stabs … out … the … words. Still, she fares better than poor Zosia Mamet as the starstruck Vassar girl determined to get Thomas to his reading on time. 

More crucially, for a film about a famous poet, “Dominion” is curiously uninterested in the poetry. The extracts we do hear, declaimed by Ifans in a decent approximation of Thomas’ florid (and now rather unfashionable) rhetorical style, are greatest-hits snippets, there not so much for their meaning or beauty as to have Ifans practice his round vowels while crowds of 1950s ladies swoon in packed lecture theaters.

As Thomas is rounding on drinks 16 through 18, Bernstein suddenly deploys the barman Carlos (Santoro) as a sort of Mephisto character, designed to puncture Thomas’ self-mythologizing tendencies. But it’s too little, too unbelievable, and too late. The latest in a long, long line of aggrandizing portraits of Great Men bedeviled (but also somehow ennobled, these biopics coyly suggest) by even greater demons, Bernstein’s Thomas is ultimately just another of those raving, reeking bar-stool philosophers we’ve all met/been at some point: occasionally amusing but mostly just self-pitying, and stinking drunk.

Film Review: 'Dominion'

Reviewed at Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival (competing), Nov. 29, 2017. (Also in Rio Film Festival.) Running Time: 106 MIN.

Production: A Dominion Films, FilmColony production. (International sales: Lightning Entertainment, Los Angeles). Producers: Richard N. Gladstein, Steven Bernstein, Nolan McDonald, Jacek Szumlas, Carolyn Rodney, John Malkovich. Co-Producers: Alain Gagnon, Brigitte Huff. Executive Producers: Chris Anjema, Michelle Anjema, Deanna Bartucci, Mac Blair, Wendy Demerchant Boone, Jeremy Ferdman, Sohrab Luchtmedial.

Crew: Director, screenplay: Steven Bernstein. Camera (B&W/color): Antal Steinbach. Editors: Chris Gill, Adam Bernstein, Zimo Huang. Music: Steve Bramson.

With: Rhys Ifans, John Malkovich, Rodrigo Santoro, Romola Garai, Tony Hale, Zosia Mamet.

More Film

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    Russ Tamblyn's Career Had Legs After Childhood

    With an acting career that spans work for Cecil B. DeMille and Joseph Losey to Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch, Russ Tamblyn’s creativity and longevity is proof that there’s life after child stardom. In Tamblyn’s case, there’s also been a bounty of juicy film and TV roles long after his legendary legs no longer kicked [...]

  • Olivia Wilde Booksmart Director

    Film News Roundup: Olivia Wilde to Direct Holiday Comedy for Universal

    In today’s film news roundup, Olivia Wilde has landed another directing gig following “Booksmart” and revenge thriller “Seaside” and “Woodstock: The Directors Cut” get August release dates. PROJECT LAUNCH Olivia Wilde will direct and produce an untitled holiday comedy project for Universal Pictures with her “Booksmart” partner Katie Silberman. Universal outbid five other studios for [...]

  • Choas Charles Mansion and the CIA

    Amazon Studios Takes Film Rights to Manson-Centered Drama 'Chaos' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Just in time for the 50th anniversary of the grisly murders executed by the followers of Charles Manson, Amazon Studios has optioned film rights to a nonfiction title about a journalist who spent decades obsessively following the case. The studio will adapt “Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties,” from [...]

  • Sword of Trust

    Marc Maron on 'Sword of Trust,' Lynn Shelton and Conspiracy Theories

    Marc Maron has interviewed everyone from Bruce Springsteen to President Obama, so he’s probably learned a few things about being a good interview. Of course, as he points out, he generally has over an hour to talk leisurely speak with his guests in his home and draw out stories beyond the public narrative; it’s a [...]

  • Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes - The

    Andrew Lincoln's ‘Walking Dead’ Movies to Be Released Only in Theaters

    The first planned movie centered on “The Walking Dead” character Rick Grimes will now run in theaters rather than on AMC. The announcement was made with a brief teaser video played at San Diego Comic-Con on Friday, with the video ending with the words “Only in Theaters.” The film will be distributed by Universal Pictures. [...]

  • Jennifer Beals The Last Tycoon

    Jennifer Beals Seeking SAG-AFTRA Board Seat as Matthew Modine Ally (EXCLUSIVE)

    Jennifer Beals is running for a SAG-AFTRA national board seat as a member of presidential candidate Matthew Modine’s progressive Membership First slate. Beals is best known for starring as Bette Porter on the Showtime series “The L Word” and for her lead role as Alex Owens in the 1983 hit “Flashdance.” She’s starred in the [...]

  • Alamo Drafthouse Opens New Downtown Los

    Alamo Drafthouse Storms into L.A. with New Location

    “Cinema is alive and well tonight!” Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League declared at the theatrical venue’s ribbon-cutting ceremony on Thursday night, where a gathering of 160 employees cheered and sliced into a strip of 35mm film in keeping with the company’s tradition. Despite dire predictions heralding the end of the theater-going experience, League was upbeat [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content