Netflix UK film review: The Two Popes
Ivan Radford | On 20, Dec 2019Reading time: 3 mins
Director: Fernando Meirelles
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Jonathan Pryce
Watch The Two Popes online in the UK: Netflix UK
“The hardest thing is to listen,” muses Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) in The Two Popes, Netflix’s divinely unlikely bromance. It charts a private meeting that supposedly took place between the Pope and, well, the Pope: Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), the man who would one day become Pope Francis I.
Ratzinger, aka. Benedict XVI, made the surprising decision in 2013 to relinquish the Papacy, surrounded by concerns and questions about the cover-ups of abuse within the Catholic church. Bergoglio, on the other hand, was a liberal, and represented a radical contrast to his reserved predeecssor. One of them wears pristine shoes and eats alone. The other watches football and loves nothing more than talking to people. It’s an odd couple made in heaven, and The Two Popes plays into that right from the off.
Jonathan Pryce is superb as Bergoglio, channeling warmth and humility from every pore of his weathered, wiry, deceptively youthful frame. Anthony Hopkins delivers his best performance in years as Ratzinger, sterner and more stoic, but with the faintest suggestion that it’s because he doesn’t know how to be anything else. They spark brilliantly off each other, Pryce twinkling with Ratzinger frows, one talking, the other pausing. From their outfits to the furtive glances they shoot each other across the conclave, when the cardinals are electing a new Pope, it’s an often laugh-out-loud affair.
And yet what’s remarkable about The Two Popes is that what begins as a lightweight comedy slowly and confidently emerges into something more thoughtful and moving. “You think you know better,” declares Ratzinger, with a combination of accusing suspicion and resigned vulnerability, and it’s the latter that drives their dynamic, as he comes to an awareness of the need to replace him. It’s a mix of personal and professional understanding, an acceptance blended with certainty and doubt, and Hopkins conveys it all through his shrewd stares, reserved shuffle and – yes – his playing of the piano.
The battle of the holy and the human is something the pair share, as they strive to be, in some ways, the same thing, even though they both turn out entirely different. “Sin is a wound not a stain, it requires healing,” observes one, as their exchanges become more spiritual and reflective. By the time they talk about the challenge of hearing God, their performances are so engaging and sincere that you’re totally absorbed; it’s a treat just to sit back and watch these two men interact.
But regardless of your own religious or political views, it’s also rewarding to watch them grapple with the challenge of hearing the other’s point of view, whether that’s to do with the future of the Catholic Church or the joys of pizza. Director Fernando Meirelles, who made The Constant Gardener as well as City of God, is a master at condensing dizzyingly complex ideas into something accessible and gripping, and his energetic approach is a God-send here, ensuring things move quickly, quiet moments never feel stagnant and the private conversations have the intimacy of a theatre play. Anthony McCarten’s script, too, doesn’t shy away from the darkness present in the past of Bergoglio, pulling off a string of flashbacks that in lesser hands would sap the story of its momentum.
And, throughout, a simple tension crackles, between two men both considering retirement yet both requiring the other to keep going in order to make their own plans come to fruition. The result is a superbly executed two-hander that’s a masterclass in acting from two performers at the top of their game. Funny, melancholic, shrewdly observed and grand in its microscopic scale, it’s a surprisingly gripping and moving film that finds its power in the pure act of two people learning to listen to each other.
The Two Popes is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.