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Da Vinci Code, The (2006) Print E-mail
Friday, 19 May 2006
Arriving with enough pomp and circumstance to herald the Second Coming, the movie version of Dan Brown’s ultra-best selling novel now arrives. Anyone unwise enough to actually read the poorly-written book will realize that it consists mostly of conversations about mostly historical events in dark rooms at night. In that sense, unfortunately, Ron Howard’s movie version is very faithful to the book—it’s drearily talky.

That’s not to say the movie is devoid of virtues. It’s beautifully, if darkly, photographed by Salvatore Totino, largely on real locations, including the interior of the Louvre in Paris. Fortunately, Ian McKellen has been cast as Sir Leigh Teabing, who does much of the talking. McKellen is so charismatic an actor that he would be interesting reading the movie’s credits aloud. It’s not until the scenes are over that you realize he crammed a heck of a lot of history, mostly of the Knights Templar, into a relatively short time.

Not that the movie is too short—at 149 minutes, it may be too long, but then again, Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman had the formidable task of squeezing Brown’s wordy novel into a screenplay. About all they left out is just why all these events start happening when they do. In the novel, it vaguely connected to the Millennium; in the movie, the explanation is dealt with too succinctly.

While giving a lecture in Paris, brilliant symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks; you get used to the new hairdo quickly) is summoned to the Louvre, where we’ve already seen a curator shot by an albino in monk’s robes. Clues left by the dead man, Saunière (Jean-Pierre Marielle), are puzzling, nearly inexplicable—but point to Langdon.

French police Captain Fache (Jean Reno), in charge of the case, relinquishes to Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), who arrives unexpectedly from headquarters. In a clever manner, she’s able secretly to warn Langdon that Fache thinks he’s the murderer. (Apart from that clue left by the dead man, there’s no clear reason why Fache is so convinced of Langdon’s guilt.) She reveals to the American that the dead man was her grandfather, and that Langdon has a locator chip planted by the cops.

Langdon and Sophie see each other as allies and escape from the Louvre, but are later spotted (in her tiny little car) and briefly pursued through the streets of Paris. They escape, however, then follow one clue after another, first to a safe deposit box of the dead man. The bank manager, André Vernet (Jurgen Prochnow), tries to trap them—I didn’t quite understand why—but they flee. Meanwhile, we see Silas (Paul Bettany), the albino, contacting Catholic Bishop Arigarosa (Alfred Molina), his mentor—who himself is following the orders of an unseen mastermind calling himself “The Teacher.”
Langdon realizes that all this has to do with the history of Christianity and the Holy Grail. By an impressive coincidence—Brown’s novel is crammed with impressive coincidences—the world’s leading authority on the Holy Grail, Sir Leigh Teabing (McKellen), lives nearby, though he’s British. He’s also an old friend of Langdon’s, and welcomes them to his chateau, full of religio-historic artifacts, even though it’s the middle of the night.

More is learned there, but Fache and the other cops are still on the trail of Langdon and Sophie, so Leigh, who coincidentally has a private jet in his back yard, flies them to London. It’s in England and Scotland that the story plays out.

The book, and now the movie, have aroused a storm of controversy, with aghast religious groups utterly opposed to the plot. (It involves the history of Jesus, but you knew that already, right?) Their fulminations are misplaced; the book was just a novel, the movie is just a movie. The alternate story of the Christ that they tell isn’t at all new; in fact, Brown—one of the executive producers of the movies—recently successfully defended himself in court against charges that he plagiarized a non-fiction book that made similar speculations. And that book was hardly the first.

The Big Secret of the novel is fictional speculation; it may be true, it may not. If it were true, it would hardly have the effect on Christianity that Brown suggests—partly because it would be impossible to establish beyond a reasonable doubt. The movie itself won’t trouble Christianity, though it seems likely to trouble some Christians. Brown uses these ideas to try to tell an exciting story, nothing more.

As the title indicates, Renaissance genius Leonardo Da Vinci figures in the plot, especially his painting of The Last Supper. (In the novel, the Mona Lisa also was important, but that painting—probably the world’s most famous—is briefly dealt with in the movie.) Mary Magdalene, the Emperor Constantine and the Knights Templar also have their parts to play in the history Brown creates. So does the modern conservative Catholic organization, Opus Dei; some representatives of it have already voiced their displeasure with “The Da Vinci Code.” But again, even if the movie is as popular as some have anticipated, it’s not likely to shake even the smallest leaves of the tree of Catholicism.

And as it happens, it may not be all that popular in the first place. The movie is just too damned solemn; everything is in hushed but alarmed tones, everything is very serious. Tom Hanks is one of the most likeable actors around, but here he seems stiff, as if he’s repressing his own warmth. He’s also a very funny actor, usually, but “The Da Vinci Code” is dismayingly short on humor.

It’s a Hitchcockian story, with a pursued couple, a McGuffin-like secret (the Holy Grail, no less), and another link to the bad guys uncovered every few minutes. That, in fact, is a weakness, both of the novel and the movie—there are just too many links to the underlying plot. Everyone we see, with the exception of Fache’s dogged underling (Etienne Chicot), ends up linked to another element of the big secret. This is crude, unimaginative plotting.

Howard should have studied Hitchcock, particularly “The 39 Steps,” “Saboteur” and “North by Northwest.” These had structures similar to that of “The Da Vinci Code,” sometimes as many coincidences, but those were fast-paced, full of strong characters, and laced with humor. “The Da Vinci Code” features a brief car chase at the beginning, but the rest of the movie is sadly lacking in action, excitement and tension. And it’s nearly humorless.

This is one reason why Ian McKellen is such a blessed relief when he shows up. He’s a sardonic, witty actor; when he’s on screen, the movie springs to life. You’d think this would happen with Hanks, but it doesn’t; also, he and Tautou strike no sparks at all. She’s attractive, and he’s intense, but there really is no there there in terms of their characterizations. Paul Bettany as the killer albino is both creepy and a little pathetic. He frequently tortures himself to forge a mental link to the agony of Jesus, but as in the novel, these scenes are just sensationalistic, not insightful. Alfred Molina was more effective as Doctor Octopus than he is here as the cardinal with secrets.

There are some flashbacks, including scenes of murderous but devout albino Silas’ youth, Sophie’s childhood, and a few impressively large-scale scenes of the Knights Templar. (They’re all purpose; in some movies, they’re evil, in others, like this one, basically good. I remember them mostly for making The Maltese Falcon.) In the Silas and Sophie flashbacks, Howard diffuses the focus; in the more distant, historical, flashbacks, he desaturates the color, making the scenes look sketched in charcoal.

The score by Hans Zimmer, like the movie, verges on the pompous throughout, with liturgical-sounding choruses and exalting, “miracle” music. There’s also just too much music—the entire movie seemed underscored—and Zimmer was evidently cautious about over-exciting the audience.

The novel presented ideas that were almost completely new, unheard of, to readers, such as that there were many Gospels, but most weren’t included in the Bible that the Emperor Constantine (ironically, a pagan) and others established. The possible alternate histories of Christianity were also new to most of the novel’s readers, so it caused an upsurge of interest in the history of Christianity. It’s hard to argue against a book that encourages people to read other books, but as a thriller, it was weak, talky and poorly plotted.

As a movie, “The Da Vinci Code” worked better—for me, anyway—than did the novel. It’s a handsome movie, using real locations creatively, and except for having one too many endings, will leave most in the audience reasonably satisfied. There was some applause at the end of the press screening; obviously the movie worked well for some people. If you haven’t read the novel, you’re much more likely to enjoy the movie (for its plot) than if you have. But still there’s a feeling that Ron Howard, in trying to be faithful to a popular book, has embalmed rather than realized it.

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