Possibly the most eagerly awaited film of 2006 and certainly one of the most hyped, here’s Ron Howard’s film adaptation of Dan Brown’s controversial bestselling novel. It stars Tom Hanks as a historian accused of murder whose attempt to clear his name leads to the uncovering of the greatest conspiracy in the history of mankind. Co-starring Audrey Tautou, Ian McKellen, Jean Reno, Paul Bettany and Alfred Molina. Review by Kevin O’Reilly.
So here’s what all the fuss is about. Here’s the movie of The Da Vinci Code – the story that sold countless millions of books and made Dan Brown the literary sensation of our time. It’s arguably the most eagerly awaited film of the year. Only Superman Returns has anything like as many people wanting to see it. Perhaps no movie could live up to so much hype but The Da Vinci Code is not just a disappointment, it’s a bad film by any standards and very close to a disaster.
Let me admit first that I’m not a fan. I haven’t read the book. A workmate brought a copy in, I read the first page and I gave it back. I’m not a literary snob – quite the opposite! I prefer bestsellers to Booker prize winners. However, I’m fussy about my pulp fiction and I won’t read novels as poorly written as Brown’s.
As it turns out, what’s wrong with the film is nothing to do with the quality of the source material. On the screen, Brown’s writing style is no longer an issue and his plot isn’t such a bad one. It’s a decent if uninspired follow-the-clues adventure story similar to National Treasure and Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade. If you’ve played point-and-click adventure games on your computer, you may also be reminded of the Broken Sword series. The plot is intriguing enough and the puzzles are fun.
The tale begins in Paris with a murder in the Louvre. The assassin is Silas (Paul Bettany), a mad albino monk. The victim is a French museum curator. He’s a professional acquaintance of Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), an American historian whose speciality is symbols. Langdon happens to be in town to meet him. Captain Fache (Jean Reno) of the Paris police asks the American to come to the murder scene and decypher something the curator wrote while he was dying. That’s only a ruse. In fact the captain has reason to believe the historian is the killer.
French policewoman Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) tells Langdon of Fache’s suspicions. She isn’t at the crime scene on assignment – she’s the curator’s granddaughter and she knows Robert didn’t kill him. Her grandfather was trying to pass information to his colleague and she believes the key to finding his real killer is to solve the clues he left before his death. Sophie helps Langdon escape from the police and together they start piecing together the puzzle her grandfather left behind.
The problem is not the story, it’s the manner in which director Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman have chosen to tell it. They treat The Da Vinci Code with such seriousness and self-importance that the entertainment value is squeezed out of it. This is a globetrotting pulp detective story told with the kind of somber, reverential tone I imagine the forthcoming 9/11 films will have. Howard shoots most of the scenes in dimly lit rooms. Hans Zimmer’s portentous score is always telling us that something important is happening. The actors speak in hushed tones, with frowns on their faces, reciting silly dialogue as if they were giving a eulogy.
The tone smothers the actors. Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou underplay to such a degree that their screen presences are diminished. Robert and Sophie are caught up in the adventure of a lifetime and they seem numb to it all. This is the first time the reliable Hanks has floundered on screen since The Bonfire Of The Vanities in 1990. The supporting cast do no better. The great Alfred Molina, playing a sinister cardinal, completely fails to register. Paul Bettany manages to be dull playing a mad albino monk with a silly accent. Even Jean Reno can’t find a way to have fun with his role. These are superb actors – they can’t all have been having an off day. Ron Howard has to take the blame.
It’s only when Ian McKellen makes his entrance that The Da Vinci Code sputters to life. He’s the only actor Howard doesn’t stifle. He’s the only actor who gets away with bringing humour to the film. McKellen hams it up gleefully, surmising correctly that a slightly camp, theatrical approach is the only way this material can be made to work. The moment we first hear his voice over an intercom, the film shifts up two gears. The fun he has is contagious. In their scenes together, Hanks drops his mask and comes to life for the first time.
McKellen heroically, single-handedly redeems an hour of this two-and-a-half hour slog. Not that he makes the film good exactly but he makes it entertaining to watch and he brings a touch of wit that the rest of the film desperately lacks. When he disappears, the gloom returns. His exit feels like it should be the climax – not just because McKellen’s presence dominates the proceedings but also because the film is so poorly structured. No, there’s more, there’s still a half-hour plod to a climactic discovery that you’ll see coming a mile off whether or not you’ve read the novel. Then there’s another twist after that.
What made Ron Howard, a gifted director, think this tosh should be treated with the reverence of a biblical epic? Was it the novel’s extraordinary success? Did he think he’d be offending the book’s fans by making it fun? Did Dan Brown, who’s credited as executive producer, insist his novel receive the respect he felt it deserved? Most people I know who’ve enjoyed the novel have described it as a terrific page-turner, the kind of book you tear through in a couple of days on a plane or a beach. The movie is anything but fast-paced. It creeps along with its head bowed.
Does the film’s self-importance stem from its religious theme, from the controversial plot points that have upset the Catholic Church? I’m not surprised they’re upset. The film accuses their entire religion of being based on a lie. Imagine if someone wrote a best-selling novel calling Islam a lie – the consequences don’t bear thinking about. Still, the fact that the Vatican’s gotten hot under its white collar shouldn’t necessarily lend dignity to The Da Vinci Code’s hodgepodge of theological revisionism and conspiracy theories.
Dan Brown makes some valid criticisms of Catholicism but the big secret he reveals, the lie at the heart of the religion is ludicrous: it’s wishful thinking on behalf of those who find the Catholic Church’s values offensive to their own. Has the Vatican put its own spin on Christianity? Probably. Would the Jesus described in the Gospels be angry at the way many of his followers have turned out just like the Pharisees who crucified him? Probably. Was Christ’s real message a load of fuzzy, politically correct New Age guff? Probably not.
The conspiracy doesn’t stand up to scrutiny either. If the Catholics wanted it kept quiet, why didn’t the sect that kept the knowledge alive just tell it to the Protestants? Why didn’t they split and start their own church like Martin Luther and others who were unhappy with Catholicism? Watching this movie knowing nothing about Christianity, you wouldn’t realise there was more than one Christian church.
It isn’t even a very effective conspiracy. The secret, supposedly the biggest secret in the history of mankind, has been out for years. Famously Dan Brown has been sued by the writers of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, a non-fiction book about it. This is actually the second film I’ve seen based around the secret. The first was the 2002 British production Revelation, which involved similar discoveries about Jesus and the Catholic Church. It also added a deliriously silly wrinkle – the Church wanted to clone Christ from DNA left on his crucifixion nails. Don’t rush out and rent it though, it’s worse than this.
And what of Opus Dei, the real-life Catholic association the film portrays as a band of fanatics prepared to kill to preserve the big secret? (There’s a major unintentional laugh when we see cardinals playing pool in their robes in what I assume is the Opus Dei clubhouse!) I’m puzzled as to why anyone would be fanatical about preserving a lie. Aren’t fanatics driven by the belief that they’re doing God’s work? What reward do these people expect for murdering to defeat God’s work?
Opus Dei has received a lot of publicity in the wake of the book’s success. There was talk about Labour minister Ruth Kelly being a member and thus, some presumed, a religious fanatic. I doubt its members are more sinister than any other Catholics but then I doubt the Freemasons are anything more than a bunch of bored middle-aged men who want to get away from their wives in the evenings. I bet members of these groups get a kick out of crackpots thinking they’re up to no good.
The Freemasons will get an especially big kick out of The Da Vinci Code since their inspiration, the Knights Templar figure in it. The Templars were massacred by the Church in the Middle Ages but, according to Dan Brown, their leaders – the Priory of Scion – survived and kept their big secret safe. They’re the ones who are being murdered by the mad albino monk with the silly accent. Do you see what I mean when I say this material needed more humour? A lot more humour?
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