Jude Law owes his career to his quarter-smirk, a leonine curl of the lips that whisper-snarls, “We both know I’m your better; you don’t really need to me to show it, do you?” Sure, the London-born actor is beautiful enough to have convincingly embodied genetic perfection in early breakout roles in Gattaca and The Talented Mr. Ripley. But male ingenues are as disposable as female ones. Law’s managed to stay relevant by weaponizing his handsomeness, suggesting a spine-chilling coldness or corrosion beneath. (Like Leonardo DiCaprio, his most famous contemporary, he became a heartthrob with depth.) Unthinkable for most celebrities, he’s let his good looks fade (as he tarnished his reputation with a nanny scandal), allowing his hairline a natural retreat and experimenting with gargoyle-ish contortions that his huge, crystalline eyes and wide, toothy smile were unexpectedly made for. With villainous roles in Contagion and Anna Karenina and a particularly scummy star turn in Dom Hemingway, Law has transformed himself into a first-rate character actor, letting go of the posh trappings of his youth to embrace the dirtbag within.
Premiering Sunday, HBO’s The Young Pope finds a gray-haired Law squarely in the middle of those polar extremes of his screen image. His newly elected pontiff, Lenny Belardo, is the prettiest thing around. Floating through the papal palaces in white lace gowns and creamy cascades of drapery, the snippy New Yorker is all feminine languor and New World insouciance. But there’s nothing enviable about him — not his Freudian monomania, his grubby grabs at gifts, his tyrant’s tantrums. Even amid the sea of sweeping scarlet and glinting gold that is the Vatican, his vulgarity stands apart.
Law’s American accent is a bit mannered, but he’s otherwise perfectly cast as a petty, vindictive megalomaniac suddenly hurled into an influential perch where his whims become law. There’s more than a shade of the incoming tweeter-in-chief in the new pope, whose agenda, at least outwardly, is as backward as his political maneuvers and media manipulations are brazen. Anointing himself Pope Pius XIII, presumed in the show to be in homage to Pope Pius XII, Lenny scandalizes his more liberal but ceremonially traditional foes in the Vatican by seemingly preferring pageantry over dignity. But The Young Pope is probably more effective as a papal drama than a presidential allegory, dependent as it is on the intricacies of the Catholic Church’s power and the bluntness of absolute rule.
Created and directed by Oscar-winning Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino (Youth, The Great Beauty), the series is sumptuously cinematic and satirically playful. The pilot shudders through you like the first fat chord on an electric guitar, an exuberantly irreverent mix of chain-smoking cardinals, gossip, blackmail, Coca-Cola Cherry Zero, papal winks toward masturbation, and midnight confessions of atheism. An electronica soundtrack thrums in the background, as does, in a later episode, LMFAO. Sorrentino shoots the Vatican’s regalia and architecture with such over-the-top reverence that there’s no separating grandeur from absurdity. The dissonance of being an actual, factual, how-is-this-real-life pope buzzes in Lenny’s ear during the show’s dialogue-free introductory minutes. He knows he doesn’t belong there, giving a speech to the hundreds huddled in St. Peter’s Square. But really, who does?
Unfortunately, that revelatory first episode gives way to a narrative shapelessness that sags the next four installments. (Season 1 contains 10 episodes, and the series has already been renewed for a follow-up year.) The introduction of Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), the nun who raised the orphaned Lenny, sets the stage for a triangulated tug-of-war of loyalties between the pope, his maternal surrogate, and his chief rival, Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando). But halfway through its debut season, The Young Pope isn’t quite a compelling interpersonal drama nor a suspenseful game for the throne. We learn early on that Lenny is probably nowhere near as socially conservative as he wants the Church to be, but the mystery of why he wants to take Catholicism back to the Middle Ages — while slowly undoing the institution and many of its adherents along the way — only grows more frustrating.
Law nails every display of Pius XIII’s petulance and Ugly Americanism, but Keaton’s nun is too mousy so far to make much of an impression. (At least she gets some fantastic sleepwear in a tee that reads, “I’m a virgin. But this is an old shirt.”) But it’s veteran actor Orlando who proves the most disappointing; his lines in English are so stilted I started wondering if he’d learned them phonetically. (He fares better in his copious Italian dialogue.)
But even Law can’t make The Young Pope’s low stakes work: Lenny’s mommy and daddy issues, the scheduling of speeches, telling off the umpteenth stooped old man. When he finally delivers his first address to the public, he shrouds himself in shadows. “I don’t know if you deserve me,” he taunts believers, sounding a tad too much like an abusive boyfriend. Law and Sorrentino have the oiliness down. But Lenny proves a little too slippery — not just for us, but for the show, too, which spins its wheels when it could be roaring toward a destination.