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Divine Law Stirs Up the Vatican

Jude-Law-The-Young-Pope-HBO

The surprising and subversive English actor lays bare the soul (and more) of the first American pontiff in The Young Pope...

...it might be painful to consider the thought of Law’s finest attributes being lost in all the robes that go along with playing Pope Pius XIII...

Jude Law has a flair for transforming himself for a role, and his latest endeavour doesn’t disappoint. In the HBO series The Young Pope — a sly, stylish, and ruthless saga of faith, ethics, and backroom politics in the gilded environs of the Vatican  — Law digs deep into the role of Lenny Belardo, a fictional archbishop of New York who becomes the first American to occupy the papal throne.

For the fans who swooned over the debonair British actor in early hits like The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain, it might be painful to consider the thought of Law’s finest attributes being lost in all the robes that go along with playing Pope Pius XIII. But fear not: in The Young Pope’s enthralling first episode, those admirers will be treated to the sight of Law’s still-impressive naked backside just before it’s covered up in those vestments.

Of course, this cheeky moment (and yes, that’s a terrible pun) serves as more than a titillating gesture. For one thing, it’s an early indication of The Young Pope’s provocative portrayal of a world that’s never been revealed in quite the same way. According to this vision by Paolo Sorrentino (the Italian director behind similarly audacious arthouse hits Il Divo and the Oscar-winning The Great Beauty), Vatican City’s corridors prove to be even more treacherous terrain than the West Wing. At its centre is Lenny, a formerly humble soul who uses his new position as a means to “investigate his own failings, his own doubts, his own misgivings, and his own desires for power” — or so says the man who plays him.

Scenes like the one with the nude Pope — and an even wilder dream sequence in which he tells the masses that the Roman Catholic Church is now copacetic with masturbation, contraception, and anything else believers might get up to — also confirm Law’s enduring flair for surprise and subversion.

'I feel like my only obligation is to keep myself interested and stretched and pushed as an actor...'

Playing a character who turns out to be less Pope Francis and more Frank Underwood, Law revels in this chance to confound viewers’ expectations. That’s entirely in keeping with an ambition for himself that he stated back in 2001. “I feel like my only obligation is to keep myself interested and stretched and pushed as an actor,” he told an interviewer. “That’s the only thing that drives me.”

Though this is the kind of claim that many actors make, it’s been borne out by Law’s choices. He has been remarkably adventurous for a star who had all the necessary physical attributes and charisma to coast along as a dashing leading man.

'People thought I was Dickie Greenleaf ... Me and Simon Le Bon.'

Over the course of his three-decade screen career, he could have played a lot more characters like The Talented Mr. Ripley’s Dickie Greenleaf, the role that earned him the first of his two Oscar nominations and cemented a public perception of him as a similarly glamorous and enviable figure. “People thought I was Dickie Greenleaf,” he later joked. “They assumed I was on a yacht, playing a saxophone. Me and Simon Le Bon.”

Likewise, his charismatic turn in the remake of Alfie — released in 2004, the year he was named People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive, an honour that some might regard as even better than an Oscar — could have pointed him toward innumerable rom-coms in which he plays a bloke who learns the error of his roguish ways. Instead, he has devoted his energies to different tasks not just onscreen but onstage. (His next theatrical endeavour will be starring in a new play called Obsession at London’s Barbican in the spring.)

Playing against type in 2002’s Road to Perdition as a vicious killer was perhaps the earliest indication of his eagerness not to get by on his looks. More recently, Law would acquire a paunch and shave back his hairline to play a weathered Cockney safecracker in 2013’s Dom Hemingway.

But even when he wasn’t hitting himself with an ugly stick — always a favourite tactic for actors looking to increase their cred — he found other ways to scour away signs of his debonair Dickie/Alfie screen image. That has meant being less smooth than stiff, in a quintessentially British manner, as an easily duped psychiatrist in Steven Soderbergh’s thriller Side Effects and as Robert Downey Jr.’s foil in the Sherlock Holmes franchise, the third instalment of which is in the works.

The most memorable, and funniest, evidence of his penchant for self-parody came opposite Melissa McCarthy in Spy, when he played a smarmy secret agent who was perfectly willing to take advantage the kind of licence he enjoyed thanks to his looks.

That description could have applied to Law himself had he been a different kind of star, i.e., one who liked hanging out on yachts. Yet roles like his fascinating title turn in The Young Pope demonstrate just how much he wants to push himself (and viewers) into less familiar territory. No wonder the actor feels so gratified about growing beyond those preconceptions about who he was and whom he can play.

“I have felt a freedom, which has been very fulfilling,” he recently said. Chances are that he’ll find many more ways to exercise that freedom, quite possibly with a pointy hat on his head.

Jason Anderson writes about movies for Cinema Scope, FFWD, and the Toronto Star.