Upon seeing the movie version of The Da Vinci Code my only thought was simply: this is what all the fuss is about? I had of course read Dan Brown’s novel a couple of summers ago, but considering all the hunger strikes, boycotts and all the other gibber gabber, you’d think that Ron Howard had made a movie based on The Satanic Verses, not on some hackneed airport novel with specious research.
For the three of you who are uninformed about the plot, The Da Vinci Code is about a Harvard symbologist (Tom Hanks) and a French cryptologist (Audrey Tautou) who are implicated in the death of four prominent Parisians; including the curator of the Louvre. The pair is being pursued by a relentless police captain (Jean Reno) who believes them guilty beyond the shadow of a doubt and a mad albino monk (Paul Bettany) who thinks they hold a key to a secret that could mean the end of the Catholic church. It’s a cat and mouse game that’s played out against some of the most famous landmarks in Europe, as all the characters pursue the true secret of the Holy Grail.
It’s been often said that Brown’s book reads more like a screenplay than a work of literature; Akiva Goldsman has now proven as much by managing to take the 400 page novel, and successfully squeezing it into two and a half hours. One of the things he ditched are the chapters upon chapters of exposition. In this movie you won’t see Hanks belly up to a computer library catalogue and search for key words, oh no! Who needs books when you can Google key words on wi-fi Internet access on some guys cell phone.
Also, say goodbye to much of the character development of the film’s bad guys, the monk Silas and his boss Bishop Aringarosa (Alfred Molina). Aringarosa seems at times almost forgotten in the action, and Silas just keeps popping up like some sort of Jason Voorhees-like boogeyman.
Hanks was an interesting choice to play the symbologist Robert Langdon, but unfortunately Langdon is such a passive “hero” in the film that he’s not given much to do. The action just sort of revolves around Hanks; like the proverbial ping-pong ball, he bounces from one situation to another, sometimes spouting lines like, “I have to get to a library.” At least in the novel, Langdon is genuinely invested in solving the mystery, but in the movie he often defers to the expertise of Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellan).
To wit, McKellen seems to be the only actor in the film having a good time. The screen instantly lights up as soon as Teabing enters the picture thanks to McKellan’s easy charm. With a twinkle in his eye, and a jovial flection to his readings, McKellan manages to sell his expository dialogue with grace. It’s the initial scenes with McKellan that Hanks really comes alive as Langdon.
Now I’ve razzed on Ron Howard before, maybe a little too much for a director as accomplished as him, but some how Howard ends up behind the wheel of films that are stylistically too big for him. (Remember The Grinch?) I have enjoyed some of Howard’s work in the past: last year’s under appreciated Cinderella Man comes to mind, Apollo 13 obviously, as well as parts of the little seen 2003 western The Missing. For The Da Vinci Code however, it feels like Howard knew he had a winner and really didn’t want to fly to far off the map, lest he generate controversy amongst the book’s hardcore followers.
Granted, for some inexplicable reason, this poorly written, barely researched, dime store yarn has draw the ere of so many divergent groups and sects, but the movie version is rather toothless. Take the character of Silas, who in the novel is described as the alpha albino: his skin lacks pigmentation, his hair is bleeched white and his eyes are red. The Silas in movie though simply looks like a chap who’s fair skin colour could be cured with a few weeks on the French riviera. Why? Because albino activists were upset that one of the book’s villains was one of them. Forget the fact that as far as villains go, Silas was almost relatable; a man who had suffered much and had a deep religious conviction. Of course, the screenplay jetisons much of those plot points.
I give Howard credit: the film’s got style. But as we all know a good film doesn’t run on style alone. This could have been like Raiders of the Lost Ark meets Mission: Impossible; but it’s more like Unsolved Mysteries meets Scooby Doo. Much like the book that inspired it, The Da Vinci Code entertains, but leaves you empty from the experience.
As for all the hype surrounding both the book and the film, in my humble opinion it’s much ado about nothing. As a potboiler, The Da Vinci Code is divine; Brown zooms you from one cliffhanger to the other, and pumps you full of so much esoteric knowledge the lay man or woman will think they’ve gotten the condensed version of a history degree.
There in lies the rub, that ridiculously stupid “fact” page at the beginning of the novel. The one that says that the Priory of Sion is a secret society that started up in the 10th century and gained power after unearthing the Holy Grail under the ruins of Solomon’s tomb. Well, any number of Internet sights will tell you it was started by some bored French guys in 1956. What does it tell you when even the Internet wags won’t buy your conspiracy theory?
I’m reminded off all the post release hype around Titanic. At some point people discovered that there was a real Titanic, and that real people died when the ship went down in 1912. They also discovered that many of the victims recovered were buried in a graveyard in Halifax. In that graveyard there’s a tomb belonging to Jack Dawson, AKA the name of the character that Leonardo DiCaprio played in the film. However this Dawson was a coal scuttle in Titanic’s engine room; never had he drawn Kate Winslet naked or shouted, “I’m king of the world” from the ship’s stern. But the “facts” didn’t get in the way of people thinking it was true. I think Stephen Colbert calls that “truthiness”.
If you want to see a relatively harmless summer popcorn movie, then by all means, see The Da Vinci Code and enjoy it as a well-crafted conspiracy yarn. But there’s no deep meaning to be found there, no ancient secrets for you to uncover and no revelations that will shape or shatter your belief system, whatever they may be.