Review: “The Da Vinci Code”

A chef is only as good as his ingredients, an expression that aptly applies to the film version of this decade’s biggest selling novel “The Da Vinci Code”. Despite the involvement of Oscar-winning talent both in front of and behind the camera, none can lift Dan Brown’s material above the level of dull melodrama. Slavishly loyal to a fault, no real attempt is made to adapt the work beyond what is literally on the page. Thus, forced into the quite different mold of feature film cinema, the flaws of the narrative become far more overt on screen than they do on the page.

Brown’s book is far from what you would consider great fiction with major gaps in logic, highly speculative long-winded research, little in the way of character, and twists that were so laughably cliche it seems like a joke at first glance. Nevertheless the general hook of the novel is an intriguing one, even with some long drawn out explanations it still ripped along at a decent pace, and the location hopping and moments of action were entertaining enough to be an enjoyable diversion whilst sitting on a bus or plane.

Howard’s film is as close to the text as a major studio film probably can be. Some very minor elements are changed – no second codex, Langdon is approached differently, the last act is slightly altered, some of the explanations are dramatically shortened – but otherwise it follows the novel almost to the letter. Thus, much of the problems with the picture can be placed entirely on Brown’s source material rather than its cinematic touches.

The trouble with the book was that whilst all the background information about symbology and the intriguing skewering of Christian mythology and church corruption made for interesting reading, the adventure of a killer albino monk and a bland Harvard professor caught up in a murder that framed it wasn’t so engaging. On screen that story is a little better thanks to the use of the book’s real life locales and Howard’s cinematic approach, but too often it grinds to a halt for those long spiels of explanation which don’t work so well on screen and help drag it out to a far too long 2.5 hours.

Howard tries to make these scenes more palatable by visually punching up elements, for example the Langdon character has a way of seeing code that’s lifted directly from Howard’s “A Beautiful Mind”. Other scenes contain some not particularly convincing flashbacks to ancient times. Yet they can’t get over the fact that much of the film is either talking or low-rent treasure hunting. That can be alright if there’s a sense of fun, adventure, intrigue or suspense but none of that is present.

The real life locations and the intercutting of Hanks lecture with Sauniere’s murder provides a strong start, but once things leave the Louvre it all becomes deathly serious, solemn, and sticks to the point. To some extent like the far more literate and engaging Michael Crichton, Brown has a habit of focusing on plot so much that little is left to develop the characters. The film itself conveys that problem, all the actors given stock and somewhat flat characters whose only purpose is to drive the plot along. We never get to see the human side of these people and often their actions border on not just the illogical but the stupid – and this is despite the supposed intelligence required for their professions.

A good actor can rise above the material but everyone from Hanks to Molina to Reno all turn in performances on the level of the limp material and nothing more. Bettany and Tatou try their best but the former’s character has been reduced to little more than a mildly tragic grunt whilst the latter struggles to be credible. Hanks and Tatou also simply don’t work well together, never convincingly pulling off any chemistry, and aren’t helped by having to fit so much of the novel’s prose in that their dialogue sounds forced – especially Tatou whose English is a little strained at one or two points.

Halfway through the film the action lifts up a little when Ian McKellen enters the picture. The only character to exhibit some life, his few quips and eye twinkle add the sole bits of fire to this very cold affair. McKellen’s monologue about the Grail’s history, easily the longest one of the book and film, is compelling and utilises elements such as the Last Supper painting to good effect. However as the story goes on and the character follows his predictable thread, he becomes less interesting – even if his general motives for involvement in the quest, when revealed, make for a reasonable argument.

Like the book the film drags out a little with three distinct endings that get flatter and more tired as they go on. Salvatore Totino’s cinematography makes great use of the locales and has some excellent wide shots, but much of the action suffers from far too many severe close-ups and camera shifts to seem frentic but only serve to confuse the action. Hans Zimmer’s score has moments of strong resonance but at other times is far too bombastic and overpowering for its scenes.

The stop-start nature of the material is fine in a book thanks to chapter breaks and the general ability to walk away and come back to a novel, on screen it feels awkward and uncomfortable. The general concept of the book does make for a great movie idea but the actual tome was never exactly cinematic – certainly nothing like Brown’s other Langdon adventure, the far more Hollywood friendly “Angels and Demons”. With its ticking time bomb under the Vatican Conclave and Langdon’s race around Rome to stop a serial killer slaying cardinals at famous landmarks every hour, it would’ve made a far more suitable film than Da Vinci does, even if it didn’t sell as well in the book stores.

The film version of “The Da Vinci Code” demonstrates, much like the first two “Harry Potter” movies, the danger of being loyal to a book’s words rather than its general spirit. All this eruption about the religious controversy of the novel will most likely disappear once the film is out and people realise that quite frankly the movie is so dull it won’t change any opinions, and may if anything bolster interest in religion rather than undermine it. It’s a very polished affair with moments of interest, but simply too long, too talky and just not interesting or clever enough to engage let alone entertain. Yet another lame entry in what’s already been a relatively dull start to the Summer film season.