WFTB Score: 5/20
The plot: American lecturer Robert Langdon is the prime suspect in the murder of Louvre curator Jacques Saunière; but agent Sophie Neveu isn’t convinced and helps Langdon flee the custody of brutish police Captain Fache. As they investigate the clues left by Saunière, the pair make discoveries about the real killer and the reason for the murder that have unbelievable implications for the Christian church.
To wear my serious reviewing hat for just one second – heaven knows, I won’t be needing it for the rest of the review – it’s interesting to consider how reactions to films change over the years. When Monty Python’s Life of Brian was released in 1979 it was met with howls of protest over its supposedly shabby treatment of Jesus Christ, even though Jesus has a cameo role which proves beyond all doubt that Brian ain’t him. By contrast, despite the massive success of Dan Brown’s novel rather more interest was stirred by the author’s alleged plagiarism than by his entirely blasphemous notion that Jesus was not the son of God but a very naughty boy prophet who went on to have a wife, in Mary Magdalene, and kids. Is this evidence of the church having matured, having realised that reacting to a film merely gives it more publicity? Or, as I like to think, does the church only react on the basis of quality? Life of Brian is, after all, still revered by many as the finest comedy around, whilst Dan Brown’s opus has received the accolade of being called ‘arse gravy’ by British National Treasure Stephen Fry.
All of this in good time, however. Robert Langdon’s (Tom Hanks) lecture tour in Paris is rudely interrupted by ‘kind of French FBI’ agent Collet (Etienne Chicot), who takes Langdon to the Louvre to assist in the investigation of the murder of curator Jacques Saunière (Jean-Pierre Marielle). Saunière was shot but managed to get a message across by spreading himself out naked in the shape of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, also leaving a clue in ultra-violet writing that, to Captain Bezu Fache (Jean Reno), implicates Langdon as the killer; but cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) – who just happens to be Saunière’s estranged granddaughter – is not convinced and intercedes in the investigation, helping Langdon to find out the reason for the murder and follow the old man’s trail of clues which lead them to a safety deposit box and a cryptex, a locked box which contains precious information. Robert and Sophie escape Paris and seek the sanctuary of Langdon’s academic friend Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen), who not only explains the significance of what is happening – Saunière was the head of the Priory of Sion, a secret organisation guarding the secret of Christ’s family and bloodline – but helps the fugitives by flying them to London, taking violent monk Silas (Paul Bettany) for company. However, Teabing may not be as friendly as he first appears, either to his friend or to fretting Cardinal Aringarosa (Alfred Molina), who is prepared to pay 20 million Euros to see the Priory’s explosive secrets destroyed forever.
I’m not going to review Dan Brown’s novel here except to say that the sins of the film are largely those of the book, and that Ron Howard should not necessarily be blamed for the illogicalities of the plot which sees Langdon forcing coincidences and conspiracies into being with an utter disregard for truth or sense (examples are too numerous to mention, but consider why Saunière would go to the trouble of spreading himself out naked when he could have spent the time writing more messages in UV marker pen, or how Teabing knows to join Robert and Sophie at Westminster Abbey). Indeed, Howard is to be commended for treating Brown’s anti-religious sensationalism with a straight face, fleshing out his characters and stories with plenty of flashbacks, whether they be about The Crusades, Sophie’s relationship with her grandfather (including Eyes Wide Shut-style rituals) or the reason for Langdon’s claustrophobia. The problem is that putting Brown’s work on film only shows up what a dreadful storywriter he is; the film comes to a complete halt for fifteen minutes in the middle as Hanks and McKellen explain the plot to one another, and the showdown – disarming a cripple – is a non-event, exhaustingly followed up by half an hour of coda that has no resonance since the characters have failed to create a jot of empathy with the viewer. However much the filmmakers try to dress up the story as a thriller, with car chases, stirring music and A Beautiful Mind-like visualisations of Langdon’s thought processes, The Da Vinci Code is palpable rubbish and everyone knows it (Howard can’t even convince us it’s Mary Magdalene in the Last Supper, the central pillar of the story). And while solving Brown’s juvenile riddles and anagrams as you read them gave the reader the illusion of a mental challenge, on film their daftness is all too apparent.
Not that Howard or scriptwriter Akiva Goldsman (responsible for the legendary Batman and Robin, lest we forget) help themselves much. The script is a dog, filled with such joys as (inside the Louvre) ‘The Mona Lisa is right over here!’, ‘This can’t be this!’ and my personal favourite ‘I have to get to a library…fast!’ before hopping on a London bus and solving an intractable riddle via a mobile phone’s search engine. There’s also Teabing’s line about defending a secret for over twenty centuries, which taken at face value would mean before Jesus started preaching. While the straight approach is the only one to take with this kind of material, the overly restrained performances of Hanks, Tautou (saying things only vonce like someone out of ‘Allo ‘Allo) and others mean that Brown’s characters never exhibit a sense of humour, self-awareness, or any other humanising facets. Only Ian McKellen rises above the source material with a cheerful and fruity performance that transcends the nonsense around him.
For the most part, The Da Vinci Code is a handsome film which makes good use of its locations as it flies between Paris and London. But its story is relentlessly silly and a filmed version only makes it more so, since there’s nothing about Robert and Sophie’s relationship that draws us in, or anything satisfactory about the woolly, equivocating position the film takes once its big secret is out (Jesus may or may not be divine, but faith certainly is – kinda). Worth a five purely on the basis of how unintentionally funny it can be, but in general I agree with the opinion of the estimable Mr Fry.