With a personal life so tumultuous the tabloids once resorted to phone hacking to keep tabs on him, Jude Law would not be most people’s first choice to play the Pope. But it’s exactly that notorious disregard for living life by the rule book that makes Law the perfect man to front The Young Pope, Sky Atlantic’s lavish drama about the murky underbelly of the papacy.
Law plays Lenny Belardo, a conservative cardinal who becomes the first ever American Pope after a covert Machiavellian scheme in the conclave backfires spectacularly. Like any brash young American, the newly-monikered Pope Pius XIII immediately sets about shaking up the Catholic establishment upon taking office. He demands Diet Cherry Coke for breakfast, refuses to allow any merchandise to bear his image, reverses a Vatican smoking ban introduced by his predecessor – but only for himself – and appoints Diane Keaton’s trusted nun to be his eyes and ears in the papal palace.
It’s searing stuff from Law – certainly his best work since playing Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr Ripley. He’s handsome, brooding, vain, and plays calculated indifference superbly. He also looks rather fetching in those white robes – if you’re into that sort of thing.
With such a zealous rejection of its traditions, you might expect this to be a scathing satire on the Catholic Church. In fact, The Young Pope has more universal themes on its mind, exploring the seedy power plays and politics that lay behind the implementation of God’s will. Lenny’s aggressively secular antics spark a cooly cerebral duel with Silvio Orlando’s unscrupulous Cardinal Voiello, who had hoped to manipulate the young Pope and become the true power behind the throne.
When Voiello despatches his minions to dig up some dirt on the Lenny’s orphaned youth, the new Pope retaliates by forcing the priest-confessor to break the secrecy rule and reveal the Cardinal’s darkest sin, which weirdly turns out to be having a bit of a statue-fetish – Hey, who among us hasn’t gazed up the Venus of Willendorf and at least thought about it? Really? No-one? Okay then…With so many ambiguous, vindictive men conducting shady deals and deceptions through the halls of power, it’s little wonder the show has been dubbed House of Cardinals.
Yet, The Young Pope is very much it’s own beast, largely thanks to its Oscar winning director, Paolo Sorrentino, who has firmly stamped his style on the show. The stylised silent group scenes, woozy camera angles, unsettlingly opulent set designs, a surreal mood somewhere between wonder and anxiety, Sorrentino’s signature is all over this thrilling drama.
That style is in keeping with a show that is gloriously unhurried. Every scene has plenty of room to breathe, letting Pope Pius’ thinly-veiled threats hang in the air as his enemies wait in clenched silence. It makes it hard to know exactly where The Young Pope is going, but when the journey is this lush, magnificent and exhilaratingly intriguing, it compels you to keep watching.