[…] These men bore no resemblance to the real-life men they were supposed to represent. That’s fundamentally why The Two Popes is a dangerous and misguided movie.

At the level of story, it is the same old narrative we have been fed by the media from the moment of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s election as pope in 2005. He is a “dour traditionalist,” “God’s Rottweiler,” The Man Who Couldn’t Smile or Dance. In the other corner is Francis, the first non-European pope in 1,200 years, a one-time Tango club bouncer, passionate soccer fan, the “man with the common touch,” and in due course the “Christlike Pope”—in contradistinction to all his predecessors. This movie leaves idle no media cliché: Jorge Cardinal Mario Bergoglio’s battered black brogues on the airport security scanner, Francis eschewing the papal red shoes, Bergoglio watching football in a bar and eating takeaway pizza. There’s talk of the evils of walls and the virtues of bridges.

And there is worse. The movie uses clips from real news footage. One vox pop clip shows a man reacting to Benedict’s election: “I know Ratzinger. The Nazi should not have been elected.” It is a spaghetti western without guns or horses. Ratzinger/Benedict is all but fitted up with the droopy moustache: Aloof and introverted, he eats alone, prefers Latin to other languages, has never heard of ABBA, and cannot dance the Tango. Most damningly, he resists Bergoglio’s attempt to hug him. The script leaves viewers in no doubt as to which pope they are expected to side with. …

Anthony Hopkins’s portrayal of an obsessed, bad-tempered Benedict is counterposed to Jonathan Pryce’s affable, benevolent, and placid Bergoglio. If you know anything of the truth of these two men, it is almost laughable. …

Things are not helped by the fact that, in terms of physique and kinesiology, Hopkins is utterly unsuited to playing Benedict. He depicts a bullish, lumbering man, puffed about the face, eyes like those of a dipso with a bad hangover. Everything is wrong; every graceful quality of Joseph Ratzinger is absent: the bearing, the diffidence, the passion for ideas. Neither the shyness nor quiet dignity is there.

Hopkins is also dissatisfying in that he portrays this man—one of the most brilliant Europeans of the past half-century—as a dogged doctrinalist obsessed with homosexuality and clerical celibacy. It feels like he has not, in preparing for this part, picked up even one of Ratzinger’s sixty-odd books or glanced at one of his encyclicals. Anyone who had done so would have been unable to avoid knowing that the great themes of Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy were love, charity, truth, hope, faith, reason, silence, and beauty. Hopkins is an actor of extraordinary genius, who normally approaches his parts with the deepest attention and care. Here, he has chosen to inhabit a caricature designed by others for reasons of myopia, malevolence, or both. …

The film was preceded by a book, The Pope: Francis, Benedict, and the Decision That Shook the World, also written by McCarten. His description there of Pope Francis is a mixture of the clichéd and the cockeyed: “A breath of fresh air, with a rock star’s charisma, there was a touch of John Lennon about him (both men had been on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine) with a propensity for jaw-dropping statements to make even his most ardent fans gasp.” Bergoglio is a “charismatic, fun-living Argentinian, on the surface a humble man, an extrovert, a simple dresser (he wore the same pair of black shoes for twenty years). . . . He’s a man with the common touch. A man of the people. Once even had a girlfriend.”