Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code was a monumental bestseller for several years before Ron Howard's film went into production, giving Howard the unenviable task of creating a movie that would have to both fulfill the expectations of the book's legions of fans and stand as a creative work on its own. Brown has three other novels likely to follow The Da Vinci Code to the big screen, and since main character Robert Langdon appears in one of them -- the prequel, Angels and Demons -- the film represents the start of a potential franchise.
Like Chris Columbus did with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Howard chooses to play it fairly safe with The Da Vinci Code, directing a film that stays quite true to the text without adding much innovation or creative cinematography. The resulting movie is no French Lieutenant's Woman but it's likely to satisfy fans of the book and may intrigue those who haven't read it into checking out the thriller. I think it's safe to say that Brown's appeal for readers isn't that he's a brilliant writer of mysteries; the book's structure is so similar to Brown's other novels that it's possible to guess who the main villain will be just based on his placement in the plot, and the few red herrings are pretty obvious ones. It's the sheer outrageousness of Brown's subject matter -- whether Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene sired a bloodline that continues to this day - and the implication of sinister Church figures in a centuries-long cover-up that makes the book so engrossing, and the film is very respectful to that material, declining to add gratuitous action to a long and talky denouement after the climax.
Everyone probably knows something about the story, but in a paragraph: American professor Robert Langdon's visit to Paris is interrupted when he is implicated in a murder in the Louvre. The victim, Jacques Sauniere, was the leader of a secret society and had an estranged granddaughter who is now a cryptologist with the police department. Believing in Langdon's innocence based on Sauniere's last, cryptic message, written on the floor in his own blood, granddaughter Sophie Neveu helps Langdon escape to the home of Leigh Teabing, a scholar of the Holy Grail. Teabing explains to Neveu that a secret organization, the Priory of Sion, has protected for centuries the secret that Jesus was married and had a family. Sauniere was the Grand Master of the Priory, but he and his seneschals have all been murdered by a mad albino monk in the service of the ultra-conservative Catholic organization Opus Dei. And the monks and priests in turn have been receiving instructions from a mysterious Teacher who has promised to help them destroy once and for all the Holy Grail: the bones of Mary Magdalene.
What follows is a pursuit through England and back to Paris to uncover the secrets of the Grail before the Catholic fanatics can find and destroy them, though the physical obstacles come to a screeching halt after a couple of violent confrontations, leaving only mental puzzles for Langdon and Neveu to solve. Viewers not familiar with the book may find the ending rather anticlimactic, since like The Return of the King, there are several codas following the resolution of the conflict. It's also rather frustrating that, when much was made in the book of the fact that Sophie was taught by her grandfather to solve word puzzles and cryptograms, Tom Hanks' Langdon is allowed to do nearly all the brain work, while Neveu -- who has an extraordinary if predictable connection to the Grail -- is reduced to a role nearly as passive as that of the dead Mary Magdalene, protected and spirited across borders over the centuries.
Still, Audrey Tautou is likeable as Neveu and it's fun to see Hanks in the role of a nerdy professor, though the most engaging character is Ian McKellen's Teabing. As is the case with Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber in Die Hard, Teabing is the story's real protagonist; he may be working for nobody's interests but his own, but it's his machinations that drive the plot, while Langdon's character is of necessity reactive. Paul Bettany is also memorable as Silas, the albino monk who speaks Latin over a cellphone and purifies himself after each brutal assassination he commits by mortifying his flesh, and Jean Reno brings weight to a minor character in the novel, the French chief of police with a secret connection that gives him a strong personal interest in capturing Langdon and Neveu.
Paris and London both have starring roles in the film as well. Although Brown's descriptions of famous monuments and churches can tend to be overlong and adjective-laden, Howard's night shots of the Louvre and beautifully lit interiors of Temple Church contribute greatly to the mood of the film, and while the flashbacks to the Council of Rome, the Knights Templar and other historical events bear an unfortunate resemblance to all the History Channel "Beyond 'The Da Vinci Code'" specials, those very similarities give them a sort of reality that makes the historical conspiracy theory seem both possible and logical. Brown's emphasis on the sacred feminine and his specific grievances against the Roman Catholic church get a little lost -- not that that has stopped the Church from protesting the film, as well as Fundamentalist groups and albinos who object to someone with the condition being portrayed as an amoral murderer. Interestingly, both the bloodshed and the sex have been toned down considerably from the novel to guarantee a teenage-friendly rating; Sauniere's bloody corpse, which itself constitutes a clue to his killer's identity, is never shown close up, and the sex ritual that caused a rift between Neveu and her grandfather is only barely indicated (my nine-year-old had no idea that that was what took place).
For readers who devoured the visual puns and word games of the novel, the film may be something of a disappointment, but it's hard to imagine any film that could reproduce all the literary and artistic references that can be packed into a novel. I'd like to see it again and pay more attention to the objects in the background in Teabing's study, as well as to the Mona Lisa, Madonna of the Rocks, Last Supper and other paintings that have implications for the plot. As with the novel, art historians will laugh at the superficial analyses of the masterworks and historians will roll their eyes at the Templar conspiracy, but anyone who can put aside devotion to Arthurian mythology and religious tradition and accept Tom Hanks as a nerdy professor on the trail of the Holy Grail is likely to have a good time.
Green Man Reviews