The Vatican and the papacy are always relevant. Whether you’re studying its glorious and sordid history or focusing on current events, you’re always going to get plenty of eyeballs. So when Netflix decided to explore nearly everything the position stands for with two very capable actors, you could say those very same eyeballs bulged out of their sockets.
The two actors in question? Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict XVI, who needs no introduction, and Jonathan Pryce as Pope Francis: who has been enjoying a career resurgence these past five years. That’s a hollow selling point all on its own, but the script from Anthony McCarten manages to keep things interesting, avoiding a preachy or overly historical tone, and allowing the humanity of these two individuals to really thrive.
At the end of the day, this is a film about two very powerful people having a mostly honest conversation with one another. There’s plenty of room for mental chess between the two titans (even if one is about to ascend to that honour eventually), but the film as a whole is not adversarial. Equal parts character study and period piece; the film jumps around timelines to shed some light on Pope Francis’ backstory as he struggles to accept Benedict’s resignation.
Cinematographer César Charlone makes some interesting choices throughout, framing each pope in a way that really hammers the dichotomy between them. You can definitely see the limitations of the sets provided though, with the exception of the now-famous Sistine Chapel interior replica. As expected, the real heavy-lifting is done by both Hopkins and Pryce, neither of which over-act and provide powerful, subdued performances.
Over time, the film does lose its bite. The first half is a tour de force, as Pryce literally warms up to Hopkins and the two come to an eventual understanding. In the latter half the story sort of devolves into a buddy comedy, leaning far too hard into the light fare that Two Popes only flirts with before that point. It works to an extent, especially during some of the more emotional moments (mostly more backstory detours), but the tonal shifts can be jarring.
The Two Popes doesn’t really venture into new territory in terms of anything to say on the papacy itself but humanizes two larger-than-life figures in a relatable and fairly effective manner. It doesn’t accomplish everything it sets out to do, but further cements the career of the two leads and everyone involved in the project.