The Young Pope: This Year’s Best TV Show?
Mr Jude Law in The Young Pope. Photograph by Mr Gianni Fiorito for Sky Atlantic
Everything you need know about Mr Paulo Sorrentino’s new HBO series, starring Mr Jude Law and Ms Diane Keaton.
The new must-see drama The Young Pope airs next week on Sky Atlantic in the UK. Starring a renascent Mr Jude Law as a first-ever American pontiff, the series mixes the cunning ironies of the original British House Of Cards with the panache of its Italian showrunner Mr Paolo Sorrentino, the acclaimed writer-director of The Great Beauty. It is the funniest, darkest, most elegant insight into papal power-hunger since Mr Anthony Burgess’ Earthly Powers (an even more impressive novel than A Clockwork Orange) and the premise of a devilish demagogue as “God’s representative” has glorious potential, if grim parallels, too, in the age of Mr Donald Trump. If you haven’t already, wet your whistle with the trailer, then read the five reasons The Young Pope is a contender for the best show of 2016.
Mr Paolo Sorrentino is the hottest director in Europe
The Great Beauty, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2014, was Mr Sorrentino’s ravishing, immaculately tailored hymn to Roman excess and a calling card to Hollywood. The first two episodes of his new series suggest that The Young Pope allows all the Sorrentinian hallmarks (Machiavellian plots; the dark glamour of rarefied worlds; crisp, poetic Italian dialogue; impeccable slow-mo close-up-heavy montages) to expand over 10 television hours. He is particularly good at the fluid ambiguities of memory and operatic set pieces, like the Pope’s homily to a confused audience during a storm. The Guardian’s film critic Mr Peter Bradshaw described the series as Mr Sorrentino’s Twin Peaks, a perfect sum-up of the auteur’s seamlessly strange transition from cinema to television.
Mr Jude Law has never been more dangerous
Messrs Stefano Accorsi and Jude Law in the new series. Photograph by Mr Gianni Fiorito for Sky Atlantic
Since his hypnotic turn as Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr Ripley, Mr Jude Law has never quite fulfilled his potential… until now. As Lenny Belardo and Pope Pius XIII, the youngest ever pope, he’s a chain-smoking libidinous god among men, a mix of Mr Law’s youthful charisma and a more mature mystique, both more guarded and more irreverent. Mr Law’s performance is a lip-smacking, disquieting tour de force. The vindictive Belardo gleefully mocks, manipulates and embraces a divine facelessness (“Friendly relationships are dangerous; formal relationships are as clear as springwater”). In a dream, his first homily as pope champions masturbation, abortions and gay marriage; in reality, he denounces free will and emancipation. It isn’t up to him to prove that God exists: it is up to doubters to prove that he doesn’t.
It satirises the most secret society in the world
The Young Pope illuminates the shadows of the Vatican with surrealist mischief. Nuns play football in the garden. Cardinal Voiello has impure thoughts about the Venus of Willendorf, a 25,000-year-old statue. A button under the Pope’s desk can be pushed at any time to have visitors taken away. Belardo revokes the smoking ban in the papal chamber, swigs Cherry Coke Zero, makes Cardinal Voiello get his coffee for him and insists all confessions be relayed back to him (he neutralises one rival with a single question about his sexuality). Meanwhile, Voiello investigates the young pope’s background for dirt. Among the giggling acolytes, Belardo uses jokes as a weapon to catch people out, like his claim that he no longer believes in God. Power, as Voiello says, is knowledge, and you wonder how Mr Sorrentino himself came to be so well versed in Vatican lore. God only knows what Pope Francis would think of this.
It’s a contemporary mix of fashion, décor and music
Mr Sorrentino’s films have always blended dreams, memory and fantasy with reality and, from the opening tableau of Mr Law crawling under a pile of babies, The Young Pope is a particularly modern take on an ancient subject. One piece of music combines electro feedback with choral singing; some songs (like Mr Andrew Bird’s “Logan’s Loop”) wouldn’t be out of place in a Mr Wes Anderson film. Softly lit, the costumes radiate a Catholic high fashion and Mr Law dazzles in his white habit, red shoes and flat hat. Most interestingly, Belardo exploits the power of anti-hype. He argues that the “invisible red thread” that links the most acclaimed artists (Mr JD Salinger, Mr Stanley Kubrick, Daft Punk) is their anonymity. He wants the pope to be un-photographed, as unreachable as a rock star: “I do not have an image because I am no one”.
Ms Diane Keaton plays a nun
Ms Diane Keaton and Mr Gianluca Guidi in the show. Photograph by Mr Gianni Fiorito for Sky Atlantic
Among a stellar cast, Ms Diane Keaton stands out as the nun who raised Lenny, a surrogate mother figure rewarded with a role as his special adviser. Ms Keaton’s presence as the moral compass to macho one-upmanship echoes her role in The Godfather, especially the way she challenges Mr Law’s paranoia. She and Mr James Cromwell as Lenny’s mentor Cardinal Spencer act as a father and mother of sorts to the orphan father and mother of the entire Catholic Church. There’s a lovely visual joke when she answers the door in a top captioned “I’m a virgin, but this is an old T-shirt”. For underused doyennes of cinema like her, this is exactly the kind of intricate role of which there should be far more.