The Da Vinci Code
2006Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, Ian McKellen
n the three years since Dan Brown wrote The Da Vinci Code, the wildly successful book has inspired quite a fuss. Christians throughout the world have raised well-publicized questions regarding the book’s validity and re-revered those softer ecumenical foundations upon which Brown based his thriller; Catholics elected a new pope somewhere in there as well, but that, apparently, was less important.
Now that director Ron Howard has turned the book into a summer blockbuster, the fuss has returned. In fact, part of Sony’s ingenious marketing campaign for the film was to stir up controversy to boost interest and, therefore, attendance. Consequently, it has become difficult to remember one essential fact: The Da Vinci Code is a work of fiction. Indeed, by most accounts, it is a clumsy, poorly-constructed work of pop fiction, a thriller more significant as a cultural phenomenon than as a piece of writing.
Remember, too, that Howard has made a film, rather than a novel. While book authors have all the space they need to create mood, plot, and character, film directors do not get much more than an hour and a half (unless you’re Peter Jackson or, in this case, Ron Howard). And while filmmakers have available to them a visual language, writers—try as they might to vividly describe a scene—are subject to a reader’s imagination: a picture is worth 1,000 words. Thus, the most critically successful films based on popular books in recent years—the third Harry Potter, Pride and Prejudice—were ones that ignored their book’s popularity and details in favor of essential story and the visual and cinematic points supporting it.
Howard’s Da Vinci Code is fast, whipping through a complex array of twists and turns in record time for a thriller pseudo-epic (2 hours and 29 minutes, packed to the edges). Nevertheless, Howard develops some moments of genuine thrill and excitement, working well with cinematographer Salvatore Totino’s beautiful images of Paris, rural France, and London, and Hans Zimmer’s suitably over-wrought score. The difficulty is not the film’s speed, then. It’s what Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman sacrifice along the way—most glaringly, respect for the audience’s intelligence.
The principals, symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) and French police specialist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), work through the story’s problems and riddles aloud, not conversing but telling each other details both experts should already know and blurting out obvious facts. In an early scene in the Louvre, when a clue leads Langdon to Da Vinci’s most famous painting, the Mona Lisa, Neveu tells him, “It’s just in the other room.” Tautou’s line is ridiculous on several levels. First, people of Langdon and Neveu’s intelligences would surely know where the Mona Lisa is kept without saying anything. Second, if Tautou’s line was included for the audience’s benefit, it is unnecessary. The audience would draw the fairly safe conclusion that the Mona Lisa is in the Louvre when it saw the painting in the very next shot. While this is a simplistic example, it shows that Howard and Goldsman’s efforts to keep the audience informed border on the absurd; you begin to feel like you’re a child being led through the story by hand.
The same could be said of the film’s most imaginative visual. Hanks’ Langdon, in turning away from his companions to solve a riddle, sees the problem appear in space before him. Parts of the code light up, other parts move and combine. In one instance, in the room of Ian McKellen’s English scholar with the wonderfully-absurd name, Sir Leigh Teabing (kudos to you, Mr. Brown), the illumination is done physically on a computer screen. The visual device keeps the audience up to date, certainly, and is at least an effort to keep Langdon and Neveu from talking so often to themselves. But it’s also far too reminiscent of Howard’s other code-breaking movie, A Beautiful Mind. In fact, the device is exactly the same.
The Da Vinci Code is, in a word, unconvincing. The technical or obvious dialogue exchanged between the lead characters make the film’s moments of true emotional weight—such as Neveu’s confrontation with the sadistic monk who killed her grandfather—feel forced and foolish: “Your God doesn’t forgive murderers,” Neveu says to Paul Bettany’s monk Silas, “He burns them.” The same lack of nuance renders Langdon and Neveu’s supposedly budding romantic relationship non-existent, which would not be a problem, except that in a dramatic moment when both are held hostage, it comes into play.
This bulkiness is a shame, given the level of talent assembled for the film. McKellen is gamely engaging, while extraordinary actors like Bettany, Jean Reno, and Alfred Molina do their best in underwhelming roles: villains without much motive save villainy. In the end, the talent goes to waste. As controversial as its subject has become, The Da Vinci Code the movie is inoffensive, indistinct, and perhaps worst of all, inconsequential. It creates no emotional impression beyond thrills, and takes the viewer no further than the viewer is led by the film’s heavy hand.
The Da Vinci Code is in theaters across the country now.
By: Arthur Ryel-Lindsey
Published on: 2006-05-22