The Da Vinci Code
Ron Howard, USA, 2006
Kevin Forest Moreau
As prosaic as Dan Brown's hit 2003 novel
The Da Vinci Code
can be, and as many narrative speed bumps as it throws out to arrest its own
momentum, it's still an eminently filmable book for a talented, imaginative
filmmaker. You've got a sinister cabal working behind the scenes to suppress
world-shattering information for its own gain (can anyone else say "the war
in Iraq"?). You've got lots of cinematic locations and some sweet money
shots (there's that dead guy on the floor of the Louvre with a pentacle
scrawled in blood across his chest, for starters). And you've got a
murdering albino monk on a mission from God. How hard could it be?
The answer, unfortunately, is all over Ron Howard's eagerly anticipated
adaptation. Except for some necessary short cuts, Howard is almost devoutly
faithful to the book's plot mechanics, which means that audiences looking
for an occult conspiracy thriller often feel as if they've stumbled into a
made-for-cable Discovery Channel movie, with long scenes of talking heads
bringing us up to speed on Biblical lore, ancient history and art theory.
And screenwriter Akiva Goldsman has made the unfortunate choice to retain
the melodramatic, romance-novel tone of Brown's often heavy-handed,
But the filmmakers' faithfulness doesn't fully extend to the quote-unquote
"controversial" ideas at the heart of Brown's potboiler. I shouldn't even
bother with a spoiler warning, since the book and the movie are all
over the zeitgeist right now, but basically, the book posits that Jesus
Christ was a mortal man who married Mary Magdalene and had a child,
beginning a royal bloodline (Christ having been descended from kings) that
has survived into the present. The Catholic Church, which relies on the myth
of the immortal, son-of-God Christ for its power, has spent centuries
suppressing this information and even eliminating members of this family
tree whenever possible.
In the movie, the filmmakers choose to couch these revelations in terms of
"myth" and allegation. The protagonist, Harvard "symbologist" Robert Langdon
(Tom Hanks), is much quicker to jump to the defense of history as Christians
know it, even at one point accusing his friend and accomplice, Holy Grail
historian Sir Leigh Teabing (Sir Ian McKellen) of manipulating historical
fact for his own ends.
It's a relatively minor tweaking, but a critical one. Howard's The Da
Vinci Code doesn't rewrite the book -- all the major plot twists
and revelations regarding that aforementioned bloodline, the Knights
Templar, etc., are still in place. But its eagerness to placate the book's
critics, while understandable, is a poor dramatic choice.
Okay, fine -- at one juncture, Teabing points out that it's not the whole
church that's conspiring to keep this big secret, just a corrupt few working
behind the scenes to keep their power. That's actually an improvement over
the book, which vaguely paints the entire church (and its Opus Dei
prelature) as the bad guy. But because the movie comes with its own baggage,
all but the most uninformed viewer will be well aware of the "controversy"
surrounding its claims. And that viewer will be hard-pressed not to feel as
if the film is waffling on the issue of the bloodline itself, as if trying
to have it both ways.
The thing is, it's not going to work anyway. Many religious figures
are going to condemn the movie out of hand. So why dilute its dramatic
power by trying to soften its key revelations?
That bone of contention aside, Code is still a murky, at times
plodding film. Hanks brings a hint of relatability to the staid
character of Langdon, who nonetheless spends too much time reacting to
things and not enough making decisive actions of his own. Audrey Tautou
is a bit of a cold fish as French police cryptologist Sophie Neveu,
who's so crucial to the plot. (The romantic subplot between the two has
been wisely excised, given the real-life pair's awkward lack of
chemistry.) Jean Reno brings a bit of bulldog tenacity to his role as a
police captain whose motives in pursuing Langdon for that earlier murder
seem questionable. Alfred Molina, as bishop in charge of Opus Dei, and
Paul Bettany, as the albino monk Silas, are largely wasted -- the fact
that their characters are dupes, doing the bidding of a mysterious
behind-the-scenes figure known only as "the Teacher," doesn't help. Only
McKellen rises above his material, injecting some much-needed sparks
into his role as the physically crippled but intellectually ravenous
Howard, for his part, does employ a couple of nifty tricks. A series of
quick, jarring flashbacks fill us in on some of the characters'
important backstories. And occasionally the director overlays ghostly
images of the past over the present as Langdon fills Sophie in on this
or that bit of ancient lore. But even those latter moments aren't enough
to lift the movie out of its torpor. It's enough to make you think that
Ron Howard might be a secret Vatican operative. His Da Vinci Code
is so lifeless, and so joyless in its own ideas, that anyone unfamiliar
with the book will walk away from it "All that fuss over that?"
The best way to suppress controversial ideas is to turn them into a
middlebrow blockbuster so lacking in suspenseful momentum that the
general public is in danger of falling asleep before the big revelations
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