Friday, November 11, 2016

The Young Pope/Close to the Enemy

It has not been a great year for television drama. There has been a lot of it and many of us had high hopes but, alas...

I may well deal with a few of the turkeys in another post. For now, though, I'd like to focus on two sumptuous new series, The Young Pope on Sky Atlantic, and Close to the Enemy on BBC 2.

Both are long form storytelling. Close to the Enemy will not have a direct sequel. It is hard to imagine that The Young Pope will either, although I have to say I am amazed (and grateful) that Sky commissioned it in the first place. Both, importantly, are written and directed by their creators. It really does make a difference. On the other hand, you do have to be equally good at both jobs.

Stephen Poliakoff is the last remaining significant British TV dramatist; he writes films and series purely for TV and now concentrates primarily on the first half of the 20th century. Now he directs all his own stuff he has thankfully dispensed with the services on the BBC casting directors and thereby spares us the usual suspects, who are all busy with series two of The Missing as it happens (a drama series which is mainly missing an audience). Thus the lead here is the very impressive Jim Sturgess as Callum Ferguson, something important in British military intelligence whose last task before demob is to persuade a snatched German scientist to work for the Brits. To do this he takes the scientist and his young daughter to a commandeered luxury hotel in London.

The city in the immediate aftermath of World War II is one giant bombsite. The hotel itself has been bomb damaged more than once but still clings to a veneer of luxury. Ferguson entirely embodies my idea of a smart young man on the verge of returning to Civvy Street. He has a relaxed, easy charm, and a sporty sway to his gait. He is very good indeed. Alfie Allen is his slightly creepy assistant Ringwood. There is a mysterious blonde, seemingly a call girl, hanging round the hotel. Every else our hero is shadowed by an intense brunette (Phoebe Fox) from the War Crimes Unit. The plot takes its time and is all the better for it. Rather than lurch from climax to climax, it radiates potential.

Over on Sky The Young Pope has been running for three weeks. It began with a double episode, which is all I needed to become hooked. Now let me be clear: I am no fan of Jude Law, I am a huge fan of Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty and Youth, which I bought on DVD yesterday), I am in no sense religious and have no interest whatsoever in Catholicism. In theory, I am not the audience at whom you would expect this series to be pitched. I mean, the idea of a 47 year-old American pope? Who gives a---?

Me, it turns out. From the opening scene of a naked baby crawling a across a hill of dead babies or baby dolls, only for Jude Law to crawl out the other side in his white papal skullcap and vestments - count me in! It's a dream, of course, a double-dream it transpires, but oh boy does it set the tone. Absolutely none of what follows conforms to expectations. Jude actually plays someone slightly older than himself. He is pretty, of course, but strange and remote. There is no big scandal surrounding his election although his mentor (James Cromwell) has taken it badly. The cardinals who run the Vatican machine expect business more or less as usual. The Machiavellian secretary of state Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando) has even knocked up a few notes for Pope Pius XII's first homily to the faithful from the balcony overlooking St Peter's Square.

Pius prefers to write his own - and keeps the staff waiting. The wait takes up the whole opening double-bill, so anyone who thinks Poliakoff takes his time should steer well clear of Sorrentino. First Lenny, his pre-papal name, brings in the nun who brought him up (Diane Keaton), then he makes her his chief of staff. Then he announces his demands for coverage of the homily. Utterly counter-intuitive, pretty-boy Jude insists he will not be photographed or filmed; he will simply be a shadow on the balcony. He then harangues the crowds. They have forgotten God. They do not deserve to see his (Pope Lenny's) eyes. They will not see his eyes until they have acknowledged and accepted God. Rain pours down. Lightning flashes... Elsewhere in Rome Cardinal Voiello hugs the crippled young man who is either his son or his brother.

The real star of the show, as always with Sorrentino, is the setting. I cannot believe that he was allowed to film in the real Vatican, nonetheless his Vatican sings true in every aspect. The show is filmed on an epic scale. The international cast is standout good. I didn't notice a single dud. I cannot recommend it too highly. It is by far the best TV drama of the year. Exceptional in every sense. Jude Law is superb.