– Summary –
Director : Ron Howard
Cast : Tom Hanks, Audrey Tatau, Ian McKellan, Jean Reno, Alfred Molina, Paul Bettany, Jurgen Prochnow, Charlotte Graham, Etienne Chicot, Jean-Yves Berteloot, Jean-Pierre Marielle.
Year Of Release : 2006
Length : 140 Minutes
Synopsis: When a scholar is called upon to unlock the mysterious murder of a curator of the Louvre art museum in Paris, he unwittingly becomes involved in a quest to unlock one of the greatest secrets in human history; a secret that may just bring down the Christian faith.
Review : Tepid, lukewarm effort from Ron Howard, who tries desperately to cram all of Dan Brown’s fascinatingly frenetic novel into 2 hours of film time. Unfortunately, the script requires so much talky-talk that the film staggers under it’s own weight, and the controversial themes of the original source material seem bludgeoned into the film as an afterthought. A streamlining of Browns novel may have helped considerably, and many of the directorial choices, for some reason, simply do not work.
The controversy surrounding Dan Brown’s novel The DaVinci Code has become almost larger than the story itself: the mythical religious overtones and conspiracies within conspiracies seemingly thrust randomly into a gung-ho storyline with barely a pause for breath have sold millions of copies of Browns work and have become the fodder for debate around the world. Simply put, The DaVinci Code was, and still is, a work of fiction. And to try and make some sort of argument about the fallacies spread by the early Christian church is to give Brown more credence than he really deserves. This article will not try and dissuade you from your thoughts on the novel version of this story, although we will occasionally dip into that controversy when the need arises for the purposes of the review.
The DaVinci Code, as written by Dan Brown, told a story of University professor Robert Langdon becoming involved in a quest to find the Holy Grail, supposedly the cup used by Christ to drink from during the Last Supper. When a curator at the Louvre Museum in Paris is found murdered, Robert is implicated when his name is scrawled in blood by the body. The Chief of Police, who points the blame on Langdon, forces the professor to try and solve the crime himself, when Landgon uses his knowledge of symbols and art to uncover a series of clues that point to a more subversive conspiracy underway; to reveal to the world a secret supposedly kept buried by the Catholic church for centuries that would change history as we know it. Langdon is joined in his quest to solve the riddles by Sophie Neveau, granddaughter of the murdered man, and herself a cryptologist with French police. Together, they are pursued across France and England as they seek to resolve the mystery. Along the way, they meet up with Langdon’s long-time friend, Leigh Teabing, a man who has studied Grail lore most of his life, and who now provides them with significant clues to help them on their way.
Also on the search for the Grail is an albino assassin named Silas, who has no hesitation in killing to achieve his goals. As Silas gets closer to Langdon and Neveau, the danger only increases, as the secret of the Grail is eventually uncovered, and the ultimate enemy is revealed.
The main thrust of the controversy, for those seeking enlightenment on that score, is that supposedly, the Church kept secret for hundreds of years the fact that Christ was thought to have been a mortal man, not the divine son of God, and that his divinity was decided by the Council of Nicaea, way back in the early Christian times. Also secret was the fact that he bore offspring, to the woman Mary Magdalene (who, in the Bible, is described as a sinful woman, a polite way of describing a prostitute), a fact that could undermine the faith of millions of people around the world. The Church has always maintained the divinity of Jesus, and to have this proved false would be catastrophic for the Christian faith. Or so the book goes. Whether you subscribe to Christianity or not, you can still understand why so many people would be upset with these “facts” as Dan Brown calls them, in the preface to his book.
Director Ron Howard makes dreadful use of the Parisian and London locations, many of which were filmed on the actual sites, some of which were studio sets of incredible detail. While the novel takes place over a highly compressed period of time, Howard is less accommodating when dealing with the time-frame for this film; perhaps justifiably so. Paris at night looks for all the world like any other city, save the iconic Eiffel Tower and the looming facade of the Louvre, giant glass pyramid included. Having been there myself, it truly is among the most beautiful cities in the world, but Howard barely seems to focus on it at times, which is frustratingly annoying. But when he finally does give us an iconic shot of the great city, it it tremendously emotional.
But Howard has struck a problem with The DaVinci Code, that after reading the book I didn’t think would be a problem. The film is a ponderous, emotionless affair with very little actual tension; a stark contrast to Brown’s original novel, which moves at a cracking pace and barely gives you time to take a breath. Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman managed to suck the life from the novel in his script, even though the film follows the book almost scene for scene. Some novelised moments are compressed, and characters changed slightly to become more “cinematic”, however, the emotional impact the novel carried with it (regardless of controversy) is lacking from the cinema version. It’s just so un-charismatic, so unemotional, it’s hard to understand why. The story should work, and the pacing is pretty much spot on with the book. Perhaps it’s the “man on the run” style of film this is, with Langdon being pursued across Europe. Which is unlike Angels & Demons, as that story is a “countdown to doom” scenario, and effortlessly more thrilling. But still, even with the tension of having the police after him, Langdons journey through Grail legend is stilted, bizarrely uninteresting.
Casting wise, this film is sublimely good. Leading the way is the ever-solid Tom Hanks, and his performance here as Langdon is faultless. The only problem I had with him wasn’t anything to do with his portrayal of the University professor, but more for the lack of depth the script gave him: Landgon is a two dimensional character trying desperately to be a 3 dimensional one, and although Hanks, Howard and Goldsman try, they can’t escape the fact that not even the source material gives up much info on the brainiac. A mention of Langdon’s temporary incarceration at the bottom of a well during his childhood explains his claustrophobia, which comes on in an awkwardly scripted moment and feels for all the world like the filmmakers were trying to give Langdon more depth as a character. Unfortunately, Langdon’s character exists simply to spout copious reams of dialogue regarding various legends, stories and conspiracies depending on the circumstances, and that’s repeated here in the film.
Audrey Tautou, who was utterly captivating in Amelie, still appeals here, yet is hamstrung like Hanks in terms of her characters’ depth and motivation. Tautou plays Sophie, the French woman whose Grandfather is murdered, and who takes off with Langdon to uncover the reason he died, and the secret of the Grail. Sophie, as a character, has substantial character depth and motivation, especially the link between her and her grandfather, however, Howard somehow, and I can’t explain it, makes her almost as interesting as wooden underwear. Her childhood is relived through a series of flashbacks, which grow ever more clear as the film progresses, and this is scene for scene straight from the book. But the emotional nuances Brown’s novel espoused are lost in translation here, Tautou delivering a lip-quivering performance that generates virtually no interest from the viewer. It’s simply gobsmacking.
Another solid performer who gets a raw deal here is capable French acting legend Jean Reno. As the bullish chief of French Police, Captain Fache, he gets to scowl and grimace at the camera a lot as he pursues Langdon and Neveu through France. But his character is as wooden as the rest of the film, Reno merely saying the lines and trying not to walk into the furniture, to use the old theatre vernacular. He generates no interest, no character tone (good or bad) and this makes generating tension virtually impossible for Ron Howard. Again, it’s not Reno’s fault, but the script offers nothing in the way of development. The book had some great lines about Fache’s character, but they’ve been eliminated in Goldsmans script. Perhaps the two actors who fare the best in this whole thing are Paul Bettany as Silas, and Ian McKellan as Teabing. Bettany is positively creepy as a character, the albino bad-guy getting it’s first look into cinema since Willian Frankfather’s chilling turn in Goldie Hawn’s Foul Play. Bettany imbues Silas with the malevolence and tortured soul the character needs; Silas is a broken man reborn into a world filled with evil, his body owned by God and controlled by a man known only a “The Teacher”, who instructs him in his mission to find the Grail. And McKellan, fresh from Gandalf and Magneto, delivers another sterling portrayal of a man infatuated with his life’s passion: this time, Grail lore. Teabing is a crucial figure in The DaVinci Code, and McKellan’s sleight of hand performance will have caught many off guard.
It’s really hard to pin down exactly why this film is so… well, flat. There’s no energy in it, a weird thing to say considering the fabulously dense source material. Comparatively speaking, the film follows the book closely, barely deviating from scene to scene, so you’d think a rapid-fire novel like this would have translated well onto the screen. But it doesn’t, and this time I can’t even fault screenwriter Goldsman, for he’s simply transposed the book across, and who could blame him. Why change a good thing, you’d ask yourself. Perhaps the biggest problem with Dan Brown’s book is that the sheer volume of information imparted would be catastrophic on screen: it’s filled with layer upon layer of explanation that, for a screenplay, reads like death. Goldsman does a workmanlike job of getting the script filled with the essential elements of the story, the key components that keep things moving along, and give an audience unfamiliar with the book a fighting chance.
But moments miss their mark. When Langdon and Neveu arrive in a French park to discuss the plot (essential to keep an audience up with them) they run into some junkies, and after a couple of long glances, the junkies move on. The moment passes, and the audience begins to wonder what the significance of it is. Why the serious glancing? Is this junkie going to come back and mug them? The moment isn’t resolved, and it’s among the bulk of unresolved moments that dot the film generally.
That, coupled with a lack of action-energy, which is strange coming from Ron Howard, makes The DaVinci Code a somewhat laboured experience. While I never saw the theatrical edition in cinemas, I was fortunate to have a copy of the Extended Edition on DVD lent to me to take a look. After watching it, I came to a curious conclusion. If I’d just seen the extended version, and I was unimpressed, what worried me more was the fact that I had no idea what could be removed to improve it. Normally you can pick out “extended” moments in films because they don’t really add anything other than perhaps “ambiance” to a film (obviously, there are exceptions to this rule, such as Lord Of The Rings, and James Cameron’s Aliens) but here, every moment appeared to be needed, every scene essential to the one following it: it’s a diabolical problem Ron Howard had in terms of pacing and structure.
The DaVinci Code made the bulk of it’s money from the flow-on effect of the books controversy: there’s no denying that. You’d be hard pressed to find anybody who hadn’t read the book that didn’t either hate it (it is badly written, I’ll admit) or love it (count me in) for it’s breathless enthusiasm for a good story and sheer un-put-downable-ness (I think I just coined a new word, as well as set a personal parenthesis in a sentence record) and to find this film such a disappointment is, frankly, disappointing. The story of the Code is such a good one, regardless of personal belief or any sense of truthfulness (the Priory of Scion, which the book embellishes, was found to be a hoax back in the 60’s, and the film states as much in a single line of dialogue) that you dearly wish the film was more energetic, more powerful. It simply limps along, hamstrung by an impossibly high expectation from book-lovers, and undone by lack of character development. Ron Howard cannot be faulted for his presentation of the story, after all, it’s the book on screen in the most obvious way. The fault must lie with the lack of depth Dan Brown gives these characters, because without any sort of background, we’re dealing with cardboard cutouts, and that’s not interesting at all.
If you enjoy a good mystery, watching Tom Hanks, or simply like the idea that the Catholic Church has been covering up secrets for centuries, then this is perhaps the best film you can see that strings all those things together. The DaVinci Code is a magnificent example of taking a story off the page and putting it onto the screen, however, simply as a film, it’s slow,meandering and muddled, as if the characters got lost somewhere along the way. As a Sunday afternoon DVD, it’s pretty much okay, but for anything more insightful or interesting, perhaps simply read the book.