The Da Vinci Code

| May 26, 2006

The summer movie season is upon us once again. Schools let out. The temperature climbs. Pictures line up to hit air-conditioned theaters in a barrage of cinema that doesn’t let up until September. It’s popcorn and candy time at the movies. Big stars and event films are the order of the day.
With the summer season comes hype. Loads of it, usually. No better movie demonstrates that this summer than Ron Howard’s adaptation of Dan Brown’s wildly popular novel “The Da Vinci Code”. If you haven’t read the novel, I’d wager my last dollar that you’ve at least heard of it. I’d even go so far as to bet you know what it’s about. If you haven’t, welcome back to the world. It must’ve been tough stranded on that desert island.
I won’t get too far into the content of the story here. You probably already know it. I read the book and I’ve seen the movie twice now. Let’s all agree on one important fact before we proceed – both are a work of fiction. A lot’s been made about what is fact and what is fiction in the story. Well, let’s be honest. There are some scintillating ideas bouncing around in the story, but at the end of the day we all know the story’s meant to entertain and not much else.
That story is where the film version stumbles a bit. I’ll tell you one thing about the movie “The Da Vinci Code” right away. It’s devout in its adaptation of the book. Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man) does away with Brown’s infamously bad dialogue for the most part, but lifts everything else wholesale and doesn’t really divert from the expected at all. I don’t think that was the best choice. But, in all fairness, I don’t know if the filmmakers had any other choice with a book so popular.
Tom Hanks takes top billing in “The Da Vinci Code” as our hero, Robert Langdon, the renowned American symbologist, in Paris for a lecture. Langdon’s swept up into the mystery, behind the death of Jacques Sauniere (Jean-Pierre Marielle) in the Louvre, by Captain Fache (Jean Reno). Fache believes Robert Langdon is the killer and brings him to the Louvre to extract a confession. Luckily for Langdon, Detective Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) interrupts and helps him escape. This sparks the long night’s chase at the heart of “The Da Vinci Code”. The chase covers a few countries, continents and conspiracies in pursuit of, essentially, the truth behind the legend of the Holy Grail.
Hanks’ Langdon is pursued not only by Fache, but also by Silas (Paul Bettany), a tortured Opus Dei monk. He’s the right hand man of our villain Bishop Aringarosa (Alfred Molina), a powerful member of Opus Dei. Silas is the force, the muscle. Aringarosa is the mastermind, the manipulator behind the scenes in the halls of power – the Vatican.
Along the way, Langdon turns to an old colleague, Sir Leah Teabing (Ian McKellen) for help unraveling some of the clues left by Sauniere about the whereabouts of the true Grail.
Twists and turns abound in the film, just as in the book. The strange thing, though, is that for all of the page turning drive of the book; the film adaptation lacks that same sense of urgency, that swirling sense of mystery. Now, that’s not to say it’s a bad film. It isn’t. But, it’s not nearly as great as it could be. I don’t believe that’s the fault of Ron Howard’s direction or the performances of Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, Alfred Molina or their supporting cast. I think it’s the fault of the overwhelming hype surrounding the book, and subsequently this blockbuster adaptation.
Essentially what was great in the book isn’t as cinematic as I’d hoped. The clues and puzzles, the story behind the Knights Templar, the Priory of Scion, and the birth of the Catholic Church are wrapped up in a heavy load of exposition and flashbacks that slows down the film a bit more than expected. Overall, I felt what was a fairly dynamic pulp thriller, the novel, became more of a meditative drama as a film, with a few car chases and some gunplay to punctuate the quieter moments. The film doesn’t really achieve thriller lift off until half through. Up until that point urgent moments are few and far between all of the set-up material – that back story that plays so much better in a book.
Is it fun? Yes, the film’s fun, despite its flaws. And I firmly believe that’s all a decent summer movie is supposed to be. Is it well made? For the most part, yes, it is. Everyone performs admirably well, especially Alfred Molina as the scheming Bishop and Ian McKellen as Langdon’s friend Teabing. McKellen, in particular, brings a needed jolt of counter-point to Hank’s Langdon, enlivening most of the second half of the film in the process. Ron Howard acquits himself, as director, in a respectable fashion.
Would I tell you to see the film? If you’re willing to set aside any expectations (especially if you’re a fan of the book) and forget the hype for a few hours, then I’d answer that question with this – there are a lot worse ways to spend a rainy summer afternoon than escaping into a matinee of “The Da Vinci Code” for a few hours. It’s the summer, all that matters is having a little fun, right?

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