Sunday 12 August 2007

The Da Vinci Code (2006)

Sunday 12 August 2007
Director: Ron Howard
Writer: Akiva Goldsman (based on the novel by Dan Brown)

Cast: Tom Hanks (Robert Langdon), Audrey Tautou (Sophie Neveu), Ian McKellen (Sir Leigh Teabing), Paul Bettany (Silas), Alfred Molina (Bishop Manuel Aringarosa), Jean Reno (Captain Bezu Fache), Jurgen Prochnow (Andre Vernet), Jean-Yves Bertelfoot (Remy Jean), Etienne Chicot (Lt. Collet), Jean-Pierre Marielle (Jacques Sauniere), Seth Gabel (Michael) & Marie-Francoise Audollent (Sister Sandrine)

A murder inside the Louvre, and clues hidden in Da Vinci paintings, lead to the discovery of a religious mystery protected by a secret society for two millennia…

I love a good mystery. The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown's best-selling book, became a cultural phenomenon after its release in 2003. The reason was simple: audiences like mysteries and they love conspiracies… particularly if the one being presented seems eerily legitimate.

However, a quick trawl of the internet will prove that Dan Brown merely took existing theories, embellished religious history and just slapped them onto a bog-standard mystery plot. But it proved to be a cocktail millions of readers lapped up, which leads to the inevitable Hollywood movie adaptation…

Tom Hanks headlines as Robert Langdon, a professor of religious symbology, who is called to investigate the murder of renowned Louvre curator Jacques Sauniere. It soon becomes clear that Sauniere managed to hide some cryptic messages before he died, leading Langdon and the victim's granddaughter, Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), on a perilous chase across Europe to uncover a religious secret…

Director Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind) has the unenviable task of making The Da Vinci Code cinematic, as much of the book's delight comes from simple information exchanges and regurgitation of sinister theories. Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman doesn't have a great reputation thanks to his crass scripts for Batman & Robin and Lost In Space, but he manages to distil Brown's book into a series of entertaining escapades.

The most successful moments of The Da Vinci Code are undoubtedly founds in its beginning, with the famously ridiculous Louvre murder by an albino monk called Silas (Paul Bettany). It's here that the film is at its most beguiling; a genuinely entertaining and deliciously silly romp, complete with ominous meetings of clergy and interesting little clues.

By and large, The Da Vinci Code holds your interest well, despite the fact Hanks' character is an aloof scholar and Tautou's presence ebbs away until you almost forget her involvement! The film perks up significantly when Sir Ian McKellen arrives as Sir Leigh Teabing, asked to unburden a mountain of exposition and getting away with it. You should never underestimate an Englishman's genius at making long prose absolutely riveting: this guy's done Shakespeare, remember!

Indeed, Howard's greatest trick is to cram dozens of famous faces into the film. Bettany's enjoyable self-flagellating monk, Jean Reno on autopilot as (how did you guess?) a French cop, Jurgen Prochnow (a German as a Frenchman) and Alfred Molina as dour Bishop Manuel Aringarosa. They all bring their acting skills to bare; making the ridiculous plausible, and the ponderous quite exciting.

Full enjoyment is helped if you have no knowledge of The Da Vinci Code story beforehand, which is a tall order because the novel has sold by the millions and its basic plot has entered pop-culture by osmosis. For the book's legion of fans, the film is resolutely by-the-numbers storytelling, without much life of its own. Quite simply and expectedly, this is simply "the book, visually", with few significant changes.

If, like me, you've been aware of the book's premise since Holy Blood, Holy Grail was released in 1982 (a book Dan Brown admits was an inspiration for Da Vinci Code), the movie works much better. It uses a theory you're aware of, but spins it into interesting places, effectively stapling a mystery novel onto a controversial theory. It's good fun, basically.

Tom Hanks may have been lumbered with a dry character that does little to grab your interest, but there are enough entertaining chases/escapes and a pulpy sense of melodrama to get you through. Put simply: the people who are going to hate this, would never go near it. So, if you like religious conspiracy theories and want to see famous faces gallivanting around Europe, in a sporadically entertaining way... you can't really go wrong.

Just like the book, Howard's film isn't high art -- it's just an old-fashioned adventure with some modern twists. Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade for the X-Files crowd. Good fun while it lasts, but already disappearing from memory the second it finishes.

Columbia Pictures

Budget: $125 million
149 minutes