This week, one of my very dear friends from inside the computer loaned me Pope Joan for home viewing. (Thank you, thank you, thank you!) At last I have joined the ranks of the lucky witnesses who have Seen The Gerold. (Was anyone else surprised to find out that his name is pronounced with a hard "g"? Oh, I was. I jasped out loud.)
Pope Joan is like a big loaf of raisin bread studded with plump juicy flecks of David, buttered with medieval costumery, and served with a steaming hot cup of other actors. There's enough raisins in the loaf so you don't feel deprived, but five minutes later you're hungry again. We fans are insatiable that way.
Before tackling the movie, I suppose we should get the inevitable Faramir-Gerold comparison out of the way first. At first glance, of course, the two look very similar. The long ginger mane. The similar fashion sense (though Gerold prefers fishscale Mylar jerkins to leather). The reluctant-soldier/closet-intellectual streak. The similar hobbies, namely: 1) riding sadly out to battle over cobblestone streets while women stick flowers in their saddles 2) engaging in frustrating military conversations with stubborn-idiot superiors.
However, in personality the two are quite different. Gerold is far more self-assured and far less haunted than Faramir. He's not weighed down by constant exhaustion or Daddy issues, and physically he's a little sturdier, a bit rougher around the edges. He's a man accustomed to getting his way. From an acting standpoint, I really enjoyed David's confident, mature portrayal. He moves easily around the role of a Frankish nobleman, without any strain or hesitation. One of the best moments for me: the smoldering, seething look he gives Lothar after being summarily dismissed and told to go tend to his "black sheep". GO DAISY.
Gerold's gentle nature also shines through very well, particularly when contrasted with the loathsome specimens Joan has to deal with for much of her life, from her violent sociopath of a father (played brilliantly by Iain Glenn) to the sneaky, conniving Odo, to the backstabbing Anastasius. Unfortunately, we don't get to see much of Gerold mentoring Joan and gradually building up their relationship. Instead we get conventional plot shorthand, delivered in a few quick strokes: Gerold offers to take her in, his wife hates her, then they're at the fair, then he's wowing her with the old Greek Door Trick, then he's smooching her in the brook.
As wonderful as it was to see David doing love scenes again, this was where the movie fell a little flat for me. It pains me to say it, but there just wasn't much chemistry between Joan and Gerold. I don't know if it was the dialogue, the washed-out color processing, the water, or Johanna Wokalek's arctic portrayal, but watching them kiss made me feel a little chilly. In the book, this is the point where Joan's heart blossoms for the first time as she falls in love with her kind friend and mentor: the first man to answer her burning, fierce intellect with a passion of his own. In the brook, as Gerold kisses her, Joan's eyes fly open with a sort of puzzled, thoughtful expression, like someone who's trying gefilte fish for the first time and isn't sure she likes it.
Later on, we get another water scene with full backal nudity, but unfortunately not of Gerold. (For further research on this subject, I would refer interested readers to Better Than Sex.) To borrow a phrase from Shane Maloney, there's warmth between Joan and Gerold, but no heat. If I hadn't read the book, I wouldn't be sure exactly what it was that attracted them to each other, other than the fact that they're the only two normal adults in the entire movie.
In adapting the book to the screen, some of the energy and momentum gets lost. There's little sense that the plot is building inexorably toward a terrible and tragic ending, and Joan's sacrifice is muted. Instead of having to make a truly painful choice between fulfilling her mind's potential and a lifetime of safe domestic happiness, she gets to have it both ways. After Joan becomes Pope, Gerold hangs around as consort, visiting her room after hours with a torch once she's finished poping for the day and is ready to knock some pontifical boots. (I still think it's absolutely freaking hilarious, by the way, that David's curriculum vitae now includes "the pope's lover"). Later, it's mentioned in passing that Joan is with child, but we don't see her trying to hide her pregnancy from the Vatican advisors. There's no running out of the throne room with dry heaves when someone mentions bacon, no visiting the Holy Chamber Pot nineteen times a day, no sudden craving for roasted lark with pickles. Maybe it was the world's easiest pregnancy, but I felt there needed to be at least a little drama to call attention to the precariousness of her situation. After all, Joan is surrounded by ambitious predators who would tear her apart if they suspected even a whiff of womanhood.
The ending was altered to be more deliberately cinematic, as well. The papal procession scene is cut in such a way that every nasty blow and stab to Gerold appears to make Joan cry out in pain. I know it's meant to signify a deep psychic link between the two, but I kept thinking "voodoo doll". Except when Gerold got skewered through the chest. Then I thought "potato-headed orc from The Two Towers".
More than that, I didn't quite understand the decision to have Joan die alone on the steps of the Via Sacra. Of the few "facts" we know about Joan's life, the most often repeated is that she died at the hands of a frenzied mob after giving birth. Not that I wanted to see dirt-caked peasants bashing her with rocks, but the tableau of Joan crawling slowly away from a semicircle of frozen onlookers and collapsing in a trail of blood wasn't what I was expecting. It ended with a whimper instead of a bang, and if you were unfamiliar with the legend and missed that she was pregnant, you might have wondered what was going on. But I did like the framing device of the little girl that followed in Joan's footsteps, grew up to become a bishop, and narrated the story. Stay in school, kids!
There were many delightful little moments. I loved the expression on Gerold's face when the Super Door Trick was being played on Lothar's army. I also loved the look Gerold and Joan exchanged when the cardinals interrupted their tender moment by bursting into the room and informing Joan she was Pope. *awkward* John Goodman was wonderful as Pope Sergius, and Lotte Flack was spectacular as the 10 - 14 year old Joan. I expect we'll be hearing more from her in the future. The music was also very well done.
Overall, I'd give it a B-. It's a great story, great message, and wonderfully cast, but the cinematic execution isn't quite lavish or sweeping enough to qualify as a massive global epic. It has more of a small-scale, Lifetime Movie kind of feel to it. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it may explain the reluctance of US distributors to pick it up. It deserves to be seen by a wider audience; certainly there are many readers around the world who loved the book, and there's always an appetite for movies that yank the Church's chain, a la "The Da Vinci Code". Controversy often breeds interest. I wonder if one of the cable networks would be interested in showing it?