Released: 27th November 2019
Seen: 3rd February
In 2017, Anthony McCarten wrote The Pope as a stage play. Sadly I don’t know who was in it originally (and god damn it’s impossible to find out any details of that 2017 production even though I know it existed!) but it was apparently clear to everyone from the jump that this little biographic play about the old pope and the new pope having a lengthy conversation was destined to become a movie. It was also pretty obvious to everyone that Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce were the guys who should take the lead. In Netflix’s bid to try and get an Oscar for Best Picture, they bought the rights and produced the movie version, probably figuring that the last three things Anthony McCarten wrote (Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody) all ended up with Best Picture nods so if they had him adapt his own stage play then it might happen again… it didn’t, cos this isn’t a best picture nominee, but the film is still pretty damn good.
The Two Popes is obscenely simplistic, it’s the kind of film that has a very simple elevator pitch. There are two men alive who know what it’s like to be pope, what does a conversation between them sound like? For a little over two hours, we watch as Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) tries to convince Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) to take the position of Pope Francis so that Benedict can retire. Throughout the film, they talk about the problems facing the church, their pasts, why Benedict wants to retire and why Bergoglio doesn’t want the position of pope. Intercut with flashbacks to help fill in the blanks, the film is effectively a two-person play with changes in locations happening to maintain visual interest.
The part of the film that works better than it has any right to work is the scenes where Benedict and Bergoglio find somewhere to sit down and talk. Those scenes are where Pryce and Hopkins really get a chance to show off their skills and just how insanely charismatic the two of them are as performers. Both of them evoke the same quiet strength that their real-world counterparts carried and manage to find a way to make the people they’re portraying palatable for those of us who have… let’s be kind and say “Opinions” on the church and the things it has done. They are willing to touch on things like the attitudes towards homosexuality and all that child rape that was going on in the church… touch on them, not condemn them but they bring them up. Don’t expect them to dive deep into the issues, that’s not what this film is about and that’s totally fine. This film is just about these two men on opposite sides of the political spectrum (or at least, what we currently think of as opposites… you know, former Nazi and centrist doing the bare minimum. Opposites) sitting down for a conversation and when it’s doing that, it’s engaging.
Weirdly, the part of the film that just didn’t grab me is when they follow that age-old cinematic rule of “Show, don’t tell” and have flashbacks showing sections of young Bergoglio’s life. While these are interesting, I kept wishing they would go back so I could hear Jonathan Pryce telling me about it. This is the downside to having two heavyweight performers carrying your film, leaving them feels like a loss. When we’re not with our two leads we’re still being treated to some great performances and beautiful shots but I can’t pretend I didn’t spend all the flashbacks sitting and waiting to be taken back to the conversation between the two leads.
It does help considerably that the film is also just visually beautiful. Since most of the film is just two old guys talking, you have to give people something for their eyes to enjoy so they don’t wander off. There are a lot of times when they lean into a style reminiscent of The Office where the camera’s constantly moving like they’re trying to keep up with these two men, but they aren’t afraid to also indulge in some wide shots to really make it clear that while these men might be major figures in history, they’re still just two men. Two men who are very different in many ways sitting down and talking, throwing jokes back and forth and exploring their personal problems.
The Two Popes is very subdued and has one job to do, show off how damn talented its two leads are and it absolutely shows them off. It’s strangely compelling and funny, managing to hold the audience’s attention (for the most part) over a couple of hours. It’s certainly a very good and enjoyable film, one I’d easily recommend to anyone looking to see two legends put on long silly-looking robes, put on accents and have a good chat.