From the moment you enter Oscar-winning Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s world of The Young Pope you get a sense you’re in for a curious and uncomfortable ride. The opening scenes are filled with surrealism, anxiety and confusion – intriguing as they are, they set the tone for a high-gloss television programme with hints of many of the most-heralded premium cable dramas, but obviously helmed by a European with creative flair.
The show centres around the earliest days of young American Lenny Belardo (Jude Law) ascending to the papacy as Pope Pius XIII. His election to the highest office in the Catholic church has come as a result of a less-than-perfect plot to take power by his mentor and confidant Cardinal Michael Spencer, played by James Cromwell. And however he got there, and whether he is truly ready (or worthy) of the position, it is immediately clear that Pope Pius XIII is not going to be like pontiffs before him.
His insistence on having nothing but Cherry Coke Zero for breakfast and smoking in the Vatican despite it being banned by Pope John Paul II are outward signs that this man is not going to play by the rules. So too his refusal to put his face on any Vatican merchandise or even to be seen by the television cameras or crowd when he makes his opening address to his followers.
“You want to look me in the face – go see God.”
And when he appoints Sister Mary (Dianne Keaton) – the woman who took him in as an orphan – to be his closest advisor, cutting out the traditional Vatican power players, the rumbles of civil war begin to shake through the ancient city state at the heart of Rome.
This is a drama dripping with incredible atmosphere, and laced with controversy and more than its fair share of humour. It is dark, emotive and incredibly hard to stop watching.
I have not always been a fan of his work, but Jude Law is without doubt the star of this show. He is superb as the vain, angry and unpredictable young pope. He plays darkness and tortured soul incredibly well, and this performance is certainly on par with his excellent portrayal of Dickie Greenleaf opposite Matt Damon in The Talented Mr Ripley.
Having seen just the first two episodes, it’s hard to know exactly where Sorrentino is taking this show, but one thing is clear – the viewers will always be travelling first class. Beyond the cash dripping off the glossy screen (this is made by Sky, HBO and Canal+) and the obvious controversy the subject matter is likely to cause, this a journey into a truly exceptional filmmaker's world of creativity. A place where scenes are given the space they need to breathe, jokes are left to hang, and ideas subtly sewn into the mind of the viewer as much by the silences as by the words spoken.
The battle lines are drawn between establishment and usurper, old ideas and new blood – and with no clear sense at this stage of who is right or wrong, good or evil, you can’t help but feel this show will continue to take its audience to places they weren’t expecting. Whether they like what they get when they arrive, well that remains to be seen.
The Young Pope starts on Sky Atlantic on Thursday 27th October at 9pm