Jim Eaton-Terry’s spirit is moved by Jude Law’s Pope Show
When I volunteered to review the Jude Law Pope Show it was, I admit, largely for comedy reasons. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a more preposterous elevator pitch for a show. Jude Law, who will forever be the kid from Shopping, as the Pope? The idea, coupled with on set photos of Law in his papal robes and, even better, his special Pope Hat TM , has been making me laugh for months.
I should possibly have been tipped off by last year’s crunchy, effective submarine thriller Black Sea, in which Law was surprisingly effective, despite a peculiar accent, as a grizzled, doomed submariner, to the possibility that there might be more to the Jude Law Pope Show than a few cheap gags and maybe a popemobile chase. Also the fact that this is Paolo Sorrentino’s television debut suggested that, if nothing else, Young Pope would be serious of purpose.
Boy, is The Young Pope serious of purpose. From the hypnotically striking opening image of the new Pope emerging from a giant pile of babies in St Peter’s Square, to the climactic delivery of his first homily almost two hours later, the first episode moves at a stately pace, clearly far more interested in the image than in narrative drive or, even in building a character study. It is unquestionably gorgeous to look at, with Sorrentino squeezing every shot for grandeur, and here and there finding genuinely unforgettable images. At times this veers into silliness – I thought Bryan Fuller’s operatic Hannibal was the end point for painterly surrealism in TV until I saw Jude Law, Poped up to the nines, coaxing a kangaroo out of a cage in yet another sumptuous Renaissance building. For the most part, though, the slow pace and attention to the unexpected image keeps you watching, and pulls the show away from the clichés of prestige box set drama.
The downside of making a classic HBO story (Law’s Lenny is yet another enigmatic, compelling shit in the tradition that runs all the way back to Al Swearengen and Tony Soprano, while the political byplay is essentially Game of Thrones in swishy red loafers) in the style of a middlebrow European arthouse movie, is that you lose the propulsive tension that makes the best of the recent wave of prestige drama so compelling.
On paper, the manoeuvring of sinister Camerlengo Cardinal Voiello to undermine and control the new pope, along with the various currents of the Curia and James Cromwell’s magnificently contemptuous Cardinal Spencer, should form the basis of another of the respectable soap operas that feed our binging habit – and that’s before one even mentions Diane Keaton, giving her usual elegant performance as the nun who raised Lenny. But a pace which allows Sorrentino to bask in his love of the perfect frame feels glacial when it comes to laying out the pieces of a plot. When compared to this month’s other high profile piece of Popetertainment, Robert Harris’ viciously gripping Conclave, the political and religious plotlines are as flimsy and tossed off as the visuals are considered.
But watched for spectacle alone, The Young Pope is like nothing I’ve seen even in this imperial phase of Auteur TV. Based on the first episode, if you have 10 hours and a huge screen available it’ll be well worth spending it with Jude Law, Young Pope. And with eight hours to go I’m still hoping against hope for at least a brief Popemobile chase.