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The Da Vinci Code

Ron Howard, USA, 2006

Rating: 2.6

 

Posted: May 21, 2006

By Kevin Forest Moreau

As prosaic as Dan Brown's hit 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code can be, and as many narrative speed bumps as it throws out to arrest its own momentum, it's still an eminently filmable book for a talented, imaginative filmmaker. You've got a sinister cabal working behind the scenes to suppress world-shattering information for its own gain (can anyone else say "the war in Iraq"?). You've got lots of cinematic locations and some sweet money shots (there's that dead guy on the floor of the Louvre with a pentacle scrawled in blood across his chest, for starters). And you've got a murdering albino monk on a mission from God. How hard could it be?

The answer, unfortunately, is all over Ron Howard's eagerly anticipated adaptation. Except for some necessary short cuts, Howard is almost devoutly faithful to the book's plot mechanics, which means that audiences looking for an occult conspiracy thriller often feel as if they've stumbled into a made-for-cable Discovery Channel movie, with long scenes of talking heads bringing us up to speed on Biblical lore, ancient history and art theory. And screenwriter Akiva Goldsman has made the unfortunate choice to retain the melodramatic, romance-novel tone of Brown's often heavy-handed, expository dialogue.

But the filmmakers' faithfulness doesn't fully extend to the quote-unquote "controversial" ideas at the heart of Brown's potboiler. I shouldn't even bother with a spoiler warning, since the book and the movie are all over the zeitgeist right now, but basically, the book posits that Jesus Christ was a mortal man who married Mary Magdalene and had a child, beginning a royal bloodline (Christ having been descended from kings) that has survived into the present. The Catholic Church, which relies on the myth of the immortal, son-of-God Christ for its power, has spent centuries suppressing this information and even eliminating members of this family tree whenever possible.

In the movie, the filmmakers choose to couch these revelations in terms of "myth" and allegation. The protagonist, Harvard "symbologist" Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), is much quicker to jump to the defense of history as Christians know it, even at one point accusing his friend and accomplice, Holy Grail historian Sir Leigh Teabing (Sir Ian McKellen) of manipulating historical fact for his own ends.

It's a relatively minor tweaking, but a critical one. Howard's The Da Vinci Code doesn't rewrite the book -- all the major plot twists and revelations regarding that aforementioned bloodline, the Knights Templar, etc., are still in place. But its eagerness to placate the book's critics, while understandable, is a poor dramatic choice.

Okay, fine -- at one juncture, Teabing points out that it's not the whole church that's conspiring to keep this big secret, just a corrupt few working behind the scenes to keep their power. That's actually an improvement over the book, which vaguely paints the entire church (and its Opus Dei prelature) as the bad guy. But because the movie comes with its own baggage, all but the most uninformed viewer will be well aware of the "controversy" surrounding its claims. And that viewer will be hard-pressed not to feel as if the film is waffling on the issue of the bloodline itself, as if trying to have it both ways.

The thing is, it's not going to work anyway. Many religious figures are going to condemn the movie out of hand. So why dilute its dramatic power by trying to soften its key revelations?

That bone of contention aside, Code is still a murky, at times plodding film. Hanks brings a hint of relatability to the staid character of Langdon, who nonetheless spends too much time reacting to things and not enough making decisive actions of his own. Audrey Tautou is a bit of a cold fish as French police cryptologist Sophie Neveu, who's so crucial to the plot. (The romantic subplot between the two has been wisely excised, given the real-life pair's awkward lack of chemistry.) Jean Reno brings a bit of bulldog tenacity to his role as a police captain whose motives in pursuing Langdon for that earlier murder seem questionable. Alfred Molina, as bishop in charge of Opus Dei, and Paul Bettany, as the albino monk Silas, are largely wasted -- the fact that their characters are dupes, doing the bidding of a mysterious behind-the-scenes figure known only as "the Teacher," doesn't help. Only McKellen rises above his material, injecting some much-needed sparks into his role as the physically crippled but intellectually ravenous Teabing.

Howard, for his part, does employ a couple of nifty tricks. A series of quick, jarring flashbacks fill us in on some of the characters' important backstories. And occasionally the director overlays ghostly images of the past over the present as Langdon fills Sophie in on this or that bit of ancient lore. But even those latter moments aren't enough to lift the movie out of its torpor. It's enough to make you think that Ron Howard might be a secret Vatican operative. His Da Vinci Code is so lifeless, and so joyless in its own ideas, that anyone unfamiliar with the book will walk away from it "All that fuss over that?" The best way to suppress controversial ideas is to turn them into a middlebrow blockbuster so lacking in suspenseful momentum that the general public is in danger of falling asleep before the big revelations are unfurled.

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