Phil on Film Index

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Review - The Da Vinci Code

Purely in terms of box-office, The Da Vinci Code is a sure thing. Dan Brown’s novel has become one of the most successful books of all time, with various spin-off books raking in even more cash, and television programmes debating the potential for truth in what is, essentially, a fairly preposterous work of fiction. Now the Hollywood version has finally been inflicted upon us. With one of the most mainstream-friendly directors in cinema at the helm, an A-list cast on board, and a ready-made fan base ready to swallow the movie whole regardless of quality; it’s a recipe for success which surely can’t fail.

On a business level, the makers of The Da Vinci Code haven’t failed - their film is going to be a huge financial success come what may - but as an artistic endeavour, the film is an utter catastrophe. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly whether this mess is the fault of director Ron Howard, screenwriter Akiva Goldsman or Brown himself, but I’d argue that the attempt to put this story on screen has thrown the inadequacies of all three into sharp relief.
As one of the handful of people in the western world who haven’t yet read The Da Vinci Code (and after this, never will), I can’t really comment on the film’s handling of the translation from page to screen, but others have assured me that Goldsman’s adaptation is relatively faithful, so the blame for this film’s ridiculous plot must lie with Dan Brown. The story, such as it is, follows Robert Langdon (played by a permanently constipated Tom Hanks), a renowned cryptologist who is called in by the French police when a curator is found murdered at the Louvre. We’ve already seen how Jacques Sauniere (Jean-Pierre Marielle) met his maker, shot by murderous albino monk Silas (Paul Bettany); but after taking a bullet, it seems Sauniere still had the time and the will to take off all his clothes, make strange markings on his body, leave cryptic messages all over the place, and die in a pose which recalls Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Wow, what a way to go.

The clues Sauniere left will lead Langdon on a quest to uncover a secret which has been buried for thousands of years; namely, that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, had children, and his descendants are walking the earth to this day. Langdon is aided in his crusade by Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), a pretty police cryptologist who also happens to be Sauniere’s granddaughter, and by Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen), an eccentric (i.e. English) expert on the various myths and legends surrounding Jesus. Standing in our heroes’ way is a no-nonsense French copper named Bezu Fache (Jean Reno) and the aforementioned Silas, who enjoys nothing more than a spot of self-flagellation as a respite from all those nasty murders.

The Da Vinci Code follows a very straightforward narrative structure. Landon and Sophie find a clue, explain in detail what this clue means, and then they are led to another clue. Occasionally, they find themselves escaping death by the skin of their teeth (they are saved by a pigeon at one point) or getting involved in a fight with Silas. This pattern is repeated ad infinitum throughout Goldsman’s leaden screenplay, and The Da Vinci Code quickly reveals itself to be a terrible bore.

Goldsman’s adaptation, whether it does remain faithful to the book or not, is a simply dreadful piece of screenwriting. Had The Da Vinci Code never existed in book form, it’s almost inconceivable that a screenplay this bad would have ever been made. Admittedly, there is a lot of exposition which the film needs to get across to the viewer in places, but Goldsman’s approach seems to assume that the audience need to be spoon-fed every single little piece of information lest they should find it hard to keep up. Whenever Langdon and Sophie discover something, they have an unfortunate habit of shouting it out to each other a couple of times to make it plain for the viewer. In fact, nobody in The Da Vinci Code ever seems to say anything which isn’t expositional in some way - it’s all plot, plot, plot; and character or emotion doesn’t get a look-in. With so little to work with, it’s unsurprising to see the actors’ performances suffer.

Poor old Tom Hanks. Stuck with a bad haircut and no character, Hanks struggles to invest some sort of life into a hero who never gets to do anything heroic. He is one of the most intelligent and likeable leading men in American film, but he looks thoroughly miserable here and the result is one of the few really wooden and charmless performances I’ve seen him deliver. Audrey Tautou has to face the twin obstacles of (a) acting in her second language and (b) uttering Akiva Goldsman’s unspeakable dialogue, a double whammy few actors could overcome. Paul Bettany is slightly more interesting as Silas, giving a committed display which is full of intensity, but he’s never really scary for all his commendable effort.

Some relief is provided by Ian McKellen’s appearance after a very long and dull first hour. McKellen has the good sense to not take this nonsense seriously, and his amusingly arch turn thankfully alleviates some of the tedium which descends on the film. McKellen tends to be at the centre of the film’s better moments, offering some of the few intentional laughs (as opposed to the numerous unintentional laughs elsewhere), and he is such a fine actor that he can convincingly switch moods in an instant.

Unfortunately, such relief is hard to find in The Da Vinci Code’s numbing 149 minutes. During the second half of the picture the action switches from Paris to London, but the change of scenery can’t disguise the fact that the plot stopped making sense a long time ago, and the final half-hour falls embarrassingly flat.

Ron Howard seems completely lost with this material. To make The Da Vinci Code work, you’d need a director with a taste for the gothic and macabre (Oh, for a latter day Hitchcock), but Howard’s trademark blandly inoffensive style brings nothing to the party; no atmosphere, no spark, no style. Howard also commits the cardinal sin of overloading the film with an excessive amount of flashbacks. Every time a character mentions a historical event, we are transported there to witness it, and each character also gets a little mini-movie depicting their own past traumas. However, these flashbacks tend to obscure and confuse matters more than they clarify, and they just make this overstuffed, horrendously edited film even more bloated.

Prior to The Da Vinci Code’s release there has been a maelstrom of controversy surrounding the film’s central ideas, its stance on Christianity, and its depiction of albinos. To be honest, it’s really not worth the effort. Nobody should do this ludicrous film the honour of being offended by it, and the only thing that truly is offensive about The Da Vinci Code is how bad it is. The Da Vinci Code is an illogical, uninteresting, borderline incompetent film which is a failure on almost every level; but does it matter? Regardless of critical opinion, fans of Brown’s book will still flock to screenings with zealous enthusiasm, and it will undoubtedly be one of the biggest hits of the summer. There may be nothing of value here, but the mystifying success of The Da Vinci Code shows no signs of stopping.