The legendary tale of how an in travesto woman briefly became pope during the ninth century gets a disappointingly dull workout in “Pope Joan.” Despite a game lead perf by Teuton thesp Johanna Wokalek, and handsome widescreen production values, this German-led big-budgeter — shot in English and adapted from the bestseller by Donna Woolfolk Cross — drifts along in neutral like a cut-down miniseries. Lack of any dramatic momentum in the spotty script and arch dialogue make “Joan” pretty much D.O.A. in Anglo markets, though a dubbed version has converted more than 1 million since its Oct. 22 release in Deutschland.
Cross’ 1996 potboiler sold a miraculous 5 million copies in Germany, and a pic version had been a longtime project of director Volker Schloendorff, with actress Franka Potente attached. When Schloendorff exited the production — reportedly due to a dispute with Constantin Film over having to make a TV two-parter as well — local hitmeister Soenke Wortmann (“The Miracle of Bern”) took over, with Wokalek assuming the lead role.
Wokalek, 34, who made her name as the female lead in Til Schweiger starrer “Barefoot,” and was so good as terrorist Gudrun Ensslin in “The Baader Meinhof Complex,” certainly has the right boyish looks for the part, and gives a solid, convincing perf mouthing the English dialogue. But she’s let down by flat revoicing (by an uncredited Englishwoman) and a role that doesn’t touch the emotions.
Though stagier and less dirt-under-the-fingernails in look, the 1972 “Pope Joan,” starring Liv Ullmann and scripted by John Briley, is dramatically meatier, hewing closer to the original legend and delving more into the era’s politics and Joan’s conflict between sex and faith. The Wortmann/Cross version is more of a full-on modernist-feminist tract, with the main character living in fear of being found out.
A framing device is provided by a French bishop arriving in Rome to enter Joan’s story in the papal archives (and provide occasional v.o. during the movie). Yarn proper opens in 814 with the birth of a daughter to a nutty English village priest (Iain Glen, fulminous) and his onetime heathen Saxon wife (Joerdis Triebel) near Ingelheim, in Franconia. As a kid, Johanna (Tigerlily Hutchinson) already shows exceptional reading and language skills, despite her father’s violent opposition to a girl receiving any education.
At age 10, Johanna (Lotte Flack) gets encouragement from a free-thinking religious teacher (Edward Petherbridge) but dad wants only her brother, Johannes (Jan-Hendrik Kiefer), to go to study under the bishop of Dorstadt. Johanna ends up tagging along and, seven years later (now played by Wokalek), she finds herself attracted to a handsome knight, Gerold (David Wenham).
When Gerold departs for war against the invading Norse, his mom tries to marry her off in his absence, but — shame! — the wedding is interrupted by the nasty Norsemen and only Johanna survives. Binding up her breasts and cutting her hair, she is accepted into Fulda Abbey, where her knowledge of Ancient Greek medicine earns her respect. Fearful of the truth being discovered, she finally skips the abbey and ends up journeying to Rome with some pilgrims, still disguised as a man.
It’s here, already 90 minutes in, that the movie should really develop some heft as Johanna gets a job as a personal physician (and later confidant) to Pope Sergius (John Goodman) after curing him of gout. The 1972 pic gained considerably from Trevor Howard’s subtle perf as the pope, but Goodman — adopting a blustering, OTT British accent — seems more intent on sending the whole picture up, at which point “Pope Joan” starts to sink irretrievably.
Wenham acquits himself decently but establishes no real chemistry with Wokalek. Best of the supports is Nicholas Woodeson in a Leo Genn-like role as Johanna’s wise supporter. Goodman, triumphantly miscast, thunders through lines like, “The pain! I cannot bear it! More wine!” with carefree abandonment.
Pic’s budget is all up on the screen in terrific production and costume design — especially during the Rome sequences, shot in Morocco — though not in any action setpieces that would have bolstered the movie’s scope. Cold color processing and Marcel Barsotti’s themeless score don’t help in building any emotional hooks.