It’s rare that a film title perfectly encapsulates its contents, but The Two Popes is one of those titles. This is a movie about two popes, nothing more, nothing less. It brings the current Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce) and previous Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) together in a room and has them chat about theology and the future of the Catholic Church. If that sounds rather dry, well, it is, and The Two Popes, despite some amusingly jovial scenes, is rather dull and too jargon-heavy to be particularly engaging as the two holy fathers talk in aphorisms and abstract ideas.
Pryce and Hopkins are, of course, perfectly cast, not only a startlingly good looks match with their subjects, but also attuned to their radically styles and worldviews. Hopkins has always been the harsher, colder performer, fitting with Benedict’s conservatism, whilst Pryce’s soft yet commanding tones brings Francis’s reformist liberalism to life. An extended evening sequence in which the pair just watch TV and chat like people is the highlight, humanising an otherwise slightly impenetrable script from Anthony McCarten. The story also gets tripped up by its own structure, especially in the final third.
As we approach the conclusion of Benedict announcing to Francis that he’s going to resign the papacy, we suddenly flash back to Francis’s younger life in Argentina as Jorge Bergoglio (Juan Minujin). This arrives too late in the game to appear as anything other than an interruption, and then develops an entire story of its own. Competing for space as they are, the two plot strands then devolve into a mess, both finales frustratingly uninvolving as each ends up rushing the other.
Director Fernando Meirelles was the mind behind the ingenious City of God, and though there are some very handsome shots and production design (the team had to rebuild the entire Sistine Chapel and the end result is suitably majestic), his punchier stylistic tics don’t always fit the material. Cosy, but decidedly mediocre, The Two Popes joins Anthony McCarten’s last two efforts – Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody – as a film better suited to Sunday night on ITV than a cinema.