The Dangerous Beauty of Jude Law

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Photo: Maya Robinson and Photo by Getty Images

A common refrain when discussing HBO’s new series The Young Pope is that it’s a showcase for Jude Law, who, as Pope Pius XIII, has finally shed his ingenue beginnings. It alludes to the idea that, at the start of his career, Law was lovely to look at, but offered little beyond leading-man good looks. This isn’t to say Law has never been praised or awarded, especially in his early career, when his beauty was at its peak. But the 44-year-old English actor has never been revered and studied in the ways his peers, like Daniel Day-Lewis or Philip Seymour Hoffman, have been, which is a shame. Because to categorize Law as an ingenue misunderstands a truth that has been evident since the very beginning: His presence and striking good looks don’t enchant so much as they ensnare.

As the titular figure in The Young Pope, Law’s American-born Pope (real name: Lenny Belardo) is vaulted to the position thanks to much-mentioned but never fully explained manipulation. He isn’t just unorthodox, complicated, and dangerous in the way that has come to be expected of so-called antiheroes in lush TV productions. He’s a cigarette-smoking, Cherry Coke–guzzling maelstrom. The series — created, written, and directed by Paolo Sorrentino — is weird, ostentatious, and deliriously hilarious.

Early in the second episode while tending to his new duties with some archbishops and Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), the nun who raised him and now acts as his personal secretary, a strange rumbling is heard. Lenny leads them to the noise: It’s from a cage holding a wild animal donated by the Australian foreign minister. Instead of playing it safe, he swings open the cage door and lures a grown kangaroo out as if it were a kitten. His expression here lands somewhere between resolve and deep interest. The Young Pope is full of moments like this, where it spins off into odd tangents, none of which would work without Law, who makes a meal out of every scene. Sometimes he’ll toss off clever one-liners like bombs, other times discarding them like day-old trash. In the blink of an eye, his gaze will move from compassionate to cruel scrutiny.

At one point in The Young Pope, Lenny says, “I know I’m incredibly handsome. Please, let’s try to forget about that.” But Sorrentino never does (neither does Law, for that matter). The director frames Law with a sort of movie-star grandness that only the right presence can adequately fill. He’s more than game, lending Lenny a cocky aggression, arms splayed wide as he’s addressing a hungry crowd or handling a cigarette as if to punctuate his sentences. The Young Pope is compulsively watchable because of Law, where another actor might have tilted too far into the character’s wackiness or darkness. His performance crystallizes his greatest strengths as an actor — his leonine physicality, his ability to deliver lines with equal parts charm and venom, and the ways he’s weaponized his good looks.

Director Anthony Minghella, with whom Law worked on The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain, once said about the actor, “Jude is a beautiful boy with the mind of a man. A true character actor struggling to get out of a beautiful body.” A-list actresses of this kind of great, overpowering beauty have learned to use their looks to inform their performance. This tactic is clear particularly in the tradition of femme fatales of the 1940s, or even today: Rosamund Pike’s patrician blonde visage is useful in how it contrasts with the pure psychopathy of Amy Dunne in David Fincher’s Gone Girl. An intelligent actress can use her looks in a way that enriches her work, rather than depending on or trying to downplay them.

It’s actors, though, who are often more vocal about the struggles of being an object of sexual desire while trying to carve out a fulfilling career. For actresses, beauty and a degree of sex appeal are arguably non-negotiable if they want to achieve major fame. Their careers are often curtailed in their 30s, even as their skills grow. In contrast, actors historically are given better parts and awarded as they age out of their ingenue phases. The Washington Post did a study on the age dynamics at play for men and women at the Academy Awards, writing, “The average age of best actor winners was 44, compared to the best actress average of 36. The average best supporting actor is 50, while the average best supporting actress is 40.” This only reinforces the idea that being a young, beautiful object of desire as an actor is antithetical to more acclaimed roles.  At 44, Law is still attractive, but not in the near-perfect way he was in his youth. It isn’t a coincidence his career would gain esteem as his looks have changed in middle age.

Law’s line about his handsomeness in The Young Pope could easily have been said by any number of actors who felt ill at ease with their own beauty, like Errol Flynn, whom Law played in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator. (It’s a brief cameo, but Law is light on his feet, altering his voice enough to sound akin to Flynn without falling into caricature as Cate Blanchett did with Katharine Hepburn.) Flynn was one of many to believe his good looks ruined his chances of being a serious actor. Tyrone Power, Paul Newman, and others have expressed the idea that being genetically blessed made it harder to get meatier roles. Actors in classic Hollywood didn’t have the opportunity to put on weight or drop it to perilous lows, since the studio system prized their sex appeal. But for leading men today who want to be taken more seriously, transformation is key — taking on tricky accents, losing and gaining weight to a dangerous degree, uglifying themselves. In many ways, modern actors obscuring their beauty is an attack on what classic Hollywood valued — strong star persona, gorgeousness, and a sense of play.

Law embraces this aesthetic, while adding enough darkness and unpredictability to deepen his work beyond mere classic-Hollywood, leading-man pastiche. This is what makes him one of the most entrancing modern actors: He’s at his best when he doesn’t obscure his good looks, but leans into them. This doesn’t mean he hasn’t also leaned away — just look at his lead performance in the 2013 film Dom Hemingway.

As the titular character in the uneven crime drama/black comedy, it’s Law’s voice that is heard before he’s ever seen. Over a red screen, he asks, “Is my cock exquisite?” In his introduction, he looks directly at the camera while obviously getting a blowjob. He goes on for nearly three whole minutes talking about the virtues of his treasured appendage. Even before Law is seen with grimy teeth, a paunch, and a dramatically receding hairline, his disembodied voice alerts us to how different he will be. Gone is his usual posh, eloquent purr. Instead, his voice is rough, clipped, and aggressive. The film begins as a fun, slapdash, nasty piece of work before turning into a Guy Ritchie knockoff. But throughout, Law is utterly mesmerizing. He’s bursting with quicksilver moods, cocky brio, and joyful violence. What separates Law’s transformative turn in Dom Hemingway from the countless other examples of pretty-boy actors who obscure the good looks that got them noticed in the first place is a single factor: the sheer exuberance of his performance. This isn’t a typical Oscar-bait role full of carefully curated suffering and an arc predicated on overcoming great struggle. It’s a rip-roaring, slovenly, gleefully deranged work that is as transformative within as it is without. Even if Law didn’t gain the weight, his performance as Hemingway would still sing.

And long before Dom Hemingway, Law had been doing great, even subversive work. In his early ingenue roles that clearly capitalize on his beauty, Law found ways to add texture and gravitas to what could have been mere Adonis figures.

For many, The Talented Mr. Ripley was their first introduction to Law. The 1999 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s unnerving mystery sees Law playing Dickie Greenleaf, a spoiled trust-fund kid who Matt Damon’s Tom Ripley is tasked with bringing back to the United States. Director Anthony Minghella wrings as much sumptuous beauty from the Italian landscape as possible, but from the moment he’s introduced, Law’s face is what remains his most enchanting subject. Lounging on a crowded beach, his body, tanned and taut, stretches under the bright sun. It’s the sort of achingly beautiful, aspirational movie-star entrance that’s rare to see these days. When Law is called an ingenue, it’s because of roles like this. But in Law’s hands, Dickie isn’t just an impetuous, simplistic pretty boy delaying adulthood. There is a darkness on the margins of his identity far more compelling than that of Damon’s Ripley. At times, his compliments and kind gestures don’t fully feel sincere because they’re tinged with bitterness. His eyes will unexpectedly grow dark and shark-like, as if he’s figuring out ways to use you. The warmth of his smile never quite reaches his eyes. Here, his beauty isn’t an inward quality, but a mask hiding his more damning inhibitions.

In the hands of a great actor, physical beauty can bring unexpected complexity to a role. One such figure is French actor Alain Delon, who also starred in an adaptation of Highsmith’s novel decades earlier, in the 1960 René Clement film Purple Noon. He’s an actor of such stunning beauty and grace, he feels like a genetic fluke. Delon is a clear antecedent to Law, even though in Purple Noon he isn’t playing Dickie, but Ripley himself. His performance couldn’t be more different from Damon’s approach to the character. He lends a perverse delight to Ripley as he tries on various identities. He’s cunning, elegant, playful, all wrapped up in a devastating package. Damon’s Ripley, meanwhile, is a clumsy mess, devoid of any of the deviant lust that makes Highsmith’s creation so magnetic.

While Delon and Law both use their beauty to deepen their performances, there are fundamental differences in their techniques. Delon typically carried an iciness and unreadability that belied his boyish good looks, while Law has a warmth to him that at times feels genuine (like in Nancy Meyers’s The Holiday), and other times is just a front to disguise his self-absorption (Closer). But Delon is just as clever in how he wields his beauty in films like Purple Noon: as a source of power that, to the audience, is like a mesmerizing spell. His movements have an ease that feels natural, yet at the same time too smooth to be exactly human.

In 2001’s A.I., Law demonstrates a more heightened version of this balletic physicality, as the male-prostitute robot aptly named Gigolo Joe. (Casting Law as this character almost feels like a way of poking fun at his own image as desirable leading man.) His more robotic movements are a bit too sharp or too quick to feel natural. Even the most blessed among us have some imperfection that underscores our inherent humanity. There are none of those touching imperfections in Gigolo Joe, which isn’t a matter of special-effects trickery, but of an actor with a supreme understanding of his own physicality. As stated in one of the DVD extras of the film, Law studied the work of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly in preparation for the role. At first this seems a bit odd, given how different Astaire and Kelly are. As Kelly himself once said, “Fred Astaire represents the aristocracy when he dances, and I represent the proletariat.” Kelly is grounded to the Earth with raw energy and sexuality brimming in his every move. Astaire is the picture of grace: He doesn’t so much walk and dance as he does float. But Law actually does meld these wildly different aesthetics.

Law moves nearly imperceptibly between the earthy lustfulness of Kelly and the supreme grace of Astaire. He glides, jumps from objects to the ground, and moves differently from anyone else in the film, using his movements to communicate the technological nature of his character. This understanding of his own body can be traced throughout Law’s career. Even in The Young Pope, when he smokes with such flourish or saunters through the opening credits, his keen understanding of physicality as emotion is evident. It can sometimes seem modern directors rely a bit too heavily on close-ups in order to telegraph the grandest emotions. But Law is an actor begging to be seen wide. (For the record, he works great in close-ups, too, as the beginning of The Young Pope’s third episode illustrates when he lasciviously and passionately conducts a monologue. “I love myself more than my neighbor,” he extols with only the upper half of his face filling the screen. “I love myself more than God.”)

As Law’s career has progressed, he’s played a variety of roles, including cheating obituary writer (Closer), a rougher, dashing version of John Watson (Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films), a humorous spin on the James Bond–brand of super spy (Spy), cunning mob enforcer (Road to Perdition), and Hamlet on Broadway, to name a few. In each, he mines the contradictions between his spellbinding good looks, dangerous cunning, and natural warmth. Even in uneven films like Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina he brings enough heartbreaking interiority to his work to make at least his own performance magnificent; or in the unmemorable 2004 remake of Alfie, where there’s a smarminess to his performance that prevents it from being trite. In recent years, it’s that smarminess in particular that he’s used to great effect.

Take Steven Soderbergh’s 2013 film Side Effects. Law plays a psychiatrist whose patient (Rooney Mara) kills her husband in a sleepwalking stupor, which she blames on her medication as part of an elaborate plot. He’s being manipulated, of course, and what follows is a series of double crosses and hidden agendas. But for the film to work, Law’s innocence must always be in question. The assumptions and suspicions you may have about men that good-looking complicates the experience of watching the film. Law’s signature dark charm and confidence, bordering on narcissism, is necessary for the film to maintain its urgency. Of course, he makes it look easy: Law is the ne plus ultra of actors who innately understand how beauty can add complexity to a role. As a viewer, to watch him is to be seduced and frightened in equal measure. He’s the ultimate cinematic fantasy and nightmare you’re not sure you ever want to wake from.

The Dangerous Beauty of Jude Law