This entertaining odd-couple bromance about two men in the running for Pope hits the heights when it’s just its leads, Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, whacking great swathes of dialogue back and forth like two old tennis greats. Hopkins’s German Pope Benedict, sly but oddly touching behind his crusty exterior, slathers on the topspin; Pryce’s Argentinian Cardinal Bergoglio (the future Pope Francis), guileless, direct and blessed with the common touch, smacks it back across the net. It’s thrilling stuff, with director Fernando Meirelles’s camera close at hand to register every subtle detail.
Opening with Pope John Paul’s death in 2005, the film is a loose dramatisation of these rivals’ relationship. A clever script from Anthony McCarten (‘Darkest Hour’) balances liturgical wrangling with lighter moments. One early scene has Bergoglio plonked in front of the football with a glass of wine, while the Pope cloisters himself away with a bottle of his beloved Fanta; the sparky reformer theologist and the conservative are divided by about 30 yards – and a chasm.
Meirelles injects enough visual snap to remind you that he once made ‘City of God’. If the second half gets a little sidetracked by flashbacks, another meaty Vatican scene is never too far away. Watching these two actors chewing over big issues – God, ageing, loneliness, celibacy, abuse in the priesthood – under the vast ceilings of this gilded palace is a joy. You’ve seen ‘The Crown’, now meet The Mitre.