Just the Two of Us

The Two Popes

by Hope Madden

How funny is it that Hannibal Lecter is playing Pope Benedict XVI?

That’s not the only sly jab Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles (City of God) takes at the pomp and scandal of the papacy in his latest, but the punches come early and make way quickly for a tone of reconciliation.

Indeed, The Two Popes may be more forgiving than many people will appreciate. Or accept.

But it’s hard to fault the casting.

Anthony Hopkins is better here than he’s been since his Oscar turn as the flesh eater. Frail and humorless (but trying!), Pope Benedict becomes a recognizable figure, one whose solitude and study have isolated him from the people he’s meant to protect and lead.

Jonathan Pryce is perhaps better than he has ever been. An ever reliable “that guy,” Pryce has built a career on versatility, never so showy he outshines the lead, never so unfussy as to be easily ignored. That facility with chemistry elevates his performance here, and as the “everyman’s” pope, Pryce becomes the vehicle for the audience.

Together the two banter back and forth, easily turning Anthony McCarten’s lofty theological and spiritual dialog into passionate conversations between two peers.

The Two Popes offers considerably more nuance than The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour or Bohemian Rhapsody, although McCarten will never be chastened for writing an unforgiving screenplay.

What he’s done with this script is imagine what the dialog between these two men might have been like as Catholicism moved headlong toward a pivotal event unseen for 600ish years. A bit like The Two of Us, Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 2000 fictional conversation between Lennon and McCartney (a pair the popes mention more than once), this film is a smartly crafted fantasy of the behind closed stained glass meetings that might have led to the changeover.

The humor is undoubtedly the brightest surprise the film has in store, but Meirelles keeps the film quick and interesting, his filmmaking simultaneously intimate and elegant. The missteps come as he refocuses attention on the future Pope Francis’s rocky past. These sequences drag, boasting neither the visual flair nor the vibrancy of the modern footage.

It’s hard not to also mark as a weakness the way the film simultaneously admonishes and reflects the Church’s tendency to be too forgiving of clergy.

Still, The Two Popes is hard to resist. In the end – especially at the end – the film is almost criminally charming.

Fightin’ Words

Darkest Hour

by Hope Madden

Back in the day—before the mustachioed Commissioner Gordon or the bewitching Sirius Black—back in the way back of the 80s and 90s, Gary Oldman was known for disappearing into real-life characters. Whether it was his Sid Vicious or Lee Harvey Oswald or Ludwig Van Beethoven, Oldman could cease to be, leaving nothing behind but the most amazing reimagining of true life.

So the fact that he’s magnificent in Darkest Hour should come as no surprise.

Besides his physical transformation, thanks to what may be the single greatest achievement in fat suits in all of moviedom, Oldman convinces by capturing the spirit of Winston Churchill.

In retrospect we know Churchill’s fighting spirit was desperately necessary— his nation was facing unfathomable odds and dealing with an establishment’s inclination toward surrender. But it’s Oldman’s performance that makes us understand why so very few were able to trust not just Churchill’s vision, but Churchill.

With the aid of an excellent turn by Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill’s wife Clementine, Oldman makes the Prime Minister knowable: driven, insecure, passionate, drunk, uncertain, romantic and somehow lovable. The performance is effortlessly layered and authentic and honestly the best work the veteran actor has done in decades.

Credit a crisp screenplay by Anthony McCarten for providing context by way of illuminating points of view, each one deftly animated by an understated ensemble delivering nuanced performances. Ben Mendelsohn’s King George and Stephen Dillane’s Viscount Halifax, in particular, quietly but assuredly manifest the uneasy but shifting perspective of a nation on the brink of possible annihilation.

Joe Wright’s direction sometimes feels fanciful given the seriousness of the story, but he works mightily with his poetic camera to enliven what could otherwise have been a claustrophobic chamber piece.

Instead, he’s crafted a fine bookend to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Darkest Hour glimpses the backroom politics that led to the ingenious and breathless rescue of England’s armed forces the summer of 1940. It lacks the gut-punch or cinematic mastery of Nolan’s film, but it does boast one hell of a performance.