Unlike millions of other people around the world, I hated Dan Brown’s bestseller “The Da Vinci Code.” Not because of the controversial subject matter, but because I thought it was badly written and had one of the most absurd, manipulative plots I’d ever come across. So now we get the big budget Hollywood version, directed by Ron Howard. Like the novel, it begins with Silas (Paul Bettany), an albino member of religious group Opus Dei, murdering the curator of the Lourve in an attempt to extract information about a hidden “keystone.” Tom Hanks steps into the role of Robert Langdon, the expert in symbols who is called in to help interpret a strange code found at the crime scene. He is implicated as a suspect when it is discovered that the victim scrawled Langdon’s name across the floor. Audrey Tatou (Amelie) plays French police cryptologist Sophie Neveu, who knows Langdon is innocent and helps him escape the clutches of over-eager inspector Bezu Fache (Jean Reno).
Sophie is, not coincidentally, the granddaughter of the murder victim and Langdon, also not coincidentally, was an acquaintance. After discerning that he left clues around the crime scene before expiring, Sophie and Langdon work together to find them. The clues lead to several Da Vinci paintings, which, in turn, lead to the discovery of a secret puzzle vial. Supposedly contained within the vial is the location of the Holy Grail. For help, they turn to Langdon’s friend, the elderly scholar Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen), who insists (Spoiler alert!) that the Grail was not a cup, but rather the direct bloodline of Jesus Christ. In other words, Christ married Mary Magdalene and they had children. Teabing says that this secret has been protected for centuries by a group known as the Priory of Scion; it could now be proven if the puzzle can be unlocked. Meanwhile, Silas continues to pursue Langdon and Sophie in order to steal the vial and deliver it to the morally questionable Bishop Aringarosa (Alfred Molina). It is, after all, in the best interests of the Catholic Church to keep this kind of thing buried.
(This is an incredibly simplified description of the plot; then again, the story has become well known even among those who have not read the novel, so I don’t suppose too much explanation on my part is necessary.)
I think that the intense public fascination with Dan Brown’s book comes from the fact that he took generally unrelated things and made them seem meaningfully intertwined. He did so with such conviction that you could almost delude yourself into thinking it was all true. (Admit it: after reading the book, you looked at “The Last Supper” and thought Holy crap! There’s a woman sitting next to Jesus!) Although the theory that Christ had a wife and children has really been floated, Brown was constructing an elaborate house of cards that tempted you to believe it was real. Call it Blair Witch Syndrome.
Okay, so the whole plot was tantalizing in a way. It was also nothing short of absurd as it relied on thriller clichés and shameless plot manipulations. The only way “The Da Vinci Code” could have been more preposterous was if it had implied that the Catholic Church was founded by space aliens and run by robots. It didn’t help that Brown was all too willing to beat you over the head with the logistics of his concept. Long digressions into the “proof” of the theory became as repetitive as they were outrageous. When he started insisting that Walt Disney was a member of the Priory of Scion and that The Little Mermaid was an attempt to pass down the secret, my interest in the book went out the window (because I’m sure the Disney animators weren’t thinking about entertaining children, or making a lot of box office coin, or anything like that.)
Ron Howard and writer Akiva Goldsman have tempered one of these problems and alleviated the other. Free of Brown’s leaden prose, the movie is able to focus on the fun stuff: finding clues and solving puzzles. The plot remains as silly as ever, but silly plots are nothing new in big early-summer blockbusters. The Hardy Boys-style mystery solving is engaging in Howard’s hands. He focuses on how Langdon and Sophie follow the trail, and it’s easy to get hooked. A strong visual style (showing how Langdon sees solutions within the clues) really adds something to the film that wasn’t contained in the book.
As for the frequently didactic tone Brown took…well, the movie simply doesn’t have time for all that exposition, even with a running time of two-and-a-half hours. The outline of the conspiracy is still here, but the filmmakers have tightened it, cutting out stuff that was extraneous or had already been covered. Consequently, the film seems to move faster than the novel did. We get the point, and then we move on rather than going over the same material again and again.
There is also a critical softening of the key scene from the book, in which Teabing outlines the idea that Christ married Mary Magdalene and had children with her. In the novel, Teabing spells this out as it pertains to “The Last Supper” and Langdon agrees with him. For the film, the two characters debate the theory, with Langdon even saying the evidence is based on “an old wives’ tale.” While this change may seem like a concession to religious groups that protested the book’s ideas, it actually serves to make the story more complex. Now that Langdon needs to be convinced, there is more drama to each scene where he puts a piece of the puzzle in place.
Hanks is quite good in a role that is very different for him (although I imagined Aaron Eckhart as Robert Langdon when I was reading the book). Audrey Tatou and Ian McKellen are also perfectly cast. Paul Bettany does what he can with a character who is conceptually flawed to begin with. Ditto Alfred Molina, who at least avoids overplaying the screen’s one millionth potentially murderous Catholic bishop.
I suppose no review of The Da Vinci Code would be complete without addressing the controversy that has surrounded its release. I think it’s great that we are having a discussion about a film in this country. That’s where the value of cinema lies. But I also think that the controversy is unnecessary. Dan Brown’s book was not investigative journalism, nor was it religious theology. It may look that way on the surface, but the truth is that “The Da Vinci Code” is fiction. And, more importantly, it is not a significant or consequential piece of fiction in any way. It’s a glorified beach read, a big old-fashioned “what if?” yarn. Those who protest it have placed far more value on the story than it earns. Ron Howard seems to know this, as he doesn’t give his film adaptation any unnecessary sense of self-importance; he merely gives us a ride.
Given the novel’s popularity, a lot of people are going to want to take that ride, and I don’t blame them. The Da Vinci Code is baloney, but as a film, I have to admit that it’s entertaining baloney.
( out of four)
The Da Vinci Code is rated PG-13 for disturbing images, violence, some nudity, thematic material, brief drug references and sexual content. The running time is 2 hours and 29 minutes.
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