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The Da Vinci Code

Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Tom Hanks, Audrey Tatou, Paul Bettany, Ian McKellan, Alfred Molina, Jean Reno

(Columbia; US DVD: 14 Nov 2006)

Review [19.May.2006]

After a difficult struggle to political acceptance and mass social significance, the Catholic Church has endured countless affronts to its authority across the ages. Protestant reformers of the 16th century, from Lutherans to Calvinists, demonstrated a particular disdain for what they identified as abuses through the integration of older pagan practices into religious ritual – abuses that smacked of magical superstition.  These practices facilitated the sale of indulgences, consecrations, exorcisms, and a variety of other means by which reformers felt the Church promoted a secular agenda that was rooted in the marvelous and aloof from religious mandate. While Protestantism gradually transformed Christianity into a more austere institution, Catholicism maintained an ornate mystery that fascinated even notorious skeptics like Oscar Wilde. 


If religion, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, is the fashionable substitute for belief, then The Da Vinci Code, judging by author Dan Brown’s quasi religious following, has asserted itself as the fashionable substitute for religion. Brown’s gambit to connect the mystical quality of the Catholic faith with the wonder that surrounds pieces of art—just as the Renaissance brought Catholicism and the great artistic revival together—and create a world of marvels to serve as the symbolic structure into which he projects his thriller, paid-off royally.  Brown’s brilliant idea, fuelled by a popular hunger for subversive conspiracies and new forms of marvelous revelations, quickly ascended to the top of the best-seller list and stayed there.  One could not escape the controversial book and its alleged challenge to the foundational myths of the Christian religion.


Well, one did in fact manage to escape. I, the critic, must now admit a slight knowledge deficit, not having read the best-selling The Da Vinci Code.  However, if the film adaptation of the popular book provides any indication of what I have missed, then I feel my time to have been spent rather wisely in not navigating its laborious labyrinthine plots, attempting to understand its tedious and unimaginative characters, and, I strongly suspect, enduring countless other insults to the fine art of prose.


It seems rather unfortunate that a story so concerned with beautiful things could not be a beautiful thing in and of itself.  Sacrilege to religion we can and should forgive as artistic license; but as for its sacrilege to art, we can offer no such absolution.


All the popular fervor aside, Dan Brown has simply taken a conventional thriller plot and wrapped it in grail myth, and the resulting film disseminates the former without in the least enhancing the reputation of the latter. The leaden and earnest affair—the ideal formula for unintentional humor—begins as Professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), a sort of celebrity academic with a specialty in the field of symbology, is called upon to examine the strange markings surrounding a dead body in the Louvre.  From those markings he, along with beautiful but blank Agent Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), begins to follow clues left in various works of art—like the famous Mona Lisa and Last Supper—that question the very foundations of the Christian faith, and send them on a quest to locate the true “Holy Grail”. (There has already been a superior movie about this subject starring Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, but let us not digress further on that issue.)


For a novel which has generated so much intense scrutiny from the now reactionary Catholic Church, the film lacks any sort of true offence. The DVD featurette, “A Conversation with Dan Brown”, unfortunately offers very little insight into the author’s creative process in the composition of the book (except that he did extensive historical and ‘factual’ research), or his reaction to the controversy it has caused.  Howard’s comments only offer the obvious fact that he was dedicated to accurately depicting the world of the book. Unfortunately, in weighing the final cinematic product, the infamous disclaimer requested by the Christian community should not have indicated that the story represents one of fiction, but instead that it is a story that under the guise of fiction presents its imaginative ideas using the tedious conditions of fact—a most inartistic of mediums.  To explain, while the book must surely have excited the imagination, the film closes it off with the codification of images better left to the endless associations of the human psychology.


A key problem arises from the fact that Howard has taken Brown’s story and told it with no flair or excitement: that is, his computer-generated gimmicks competing, and I dare say triumphing over, the flesh and blood actors. Howard makes a concerted effort to frame the proliferation of deciphering scenes dynamically, but no amount of computer-generated effects can save something fundamentally flawed in conception.  Despite the director’s insistence in his DVD interviews that Tom Hanks is an actor we “love to watch think”, one can only stand the perplexed look of Langdon, or wade through his bountiful pseudo-history lessons, for so long. Langdon’s unbearably long and poorly integrated explication flashbacks augment the already slow pace to give the film an inert, glacial quality from which it can never seem to recover.  At nearly three hours I can state without undue boast that I could have found the Holy Grail faster than it takes The Da Vinci Code to end.


In the two-part “making of” featurette, Howard goes on at great length about the challenges of adapting such a book to this medium, and despite his well chronicled efforts, some of the narrative texture must have still been lost in the transition.  The Da Vinci Code might have worked as a novel, but the extensiveness and central narrative importance of the flashback sequences might also not have been meant to make their slow creep across the silver screen.


Unfortunately, the acting adds very little to compensate for the direction. The cast displays near uniform discomfort in their flatly drawn roles.  When an actor the caliber of Tom Hanks seems confused regarding his character, then all must be surely lost, and, coincidentally, it is.  The role of Professor Langdon gives Hanks nothing upon which to hang his hat.  In fact, I would be hard pressed to describe his character to anyone. (He “has long hair” and “often looks befuddled” is the best I can devise.)  Bizarre details, like his claustrophobia, seem like odd remnants of the book; story threads that are never drawn-out in the film, and serve only to perplex the viewer as they try their patience. 


Alas, the “How Tom Hanks Became Robert Langdon”, feature does not shed much light on his acting choices.  It instead explains how Tom Hanks so well fit the role because of his natural curiosity and history as a character actor.  These things might qualify him for the role, yet, but Hanks, with his two Oscars and reputation as one of the most bankable actors in Hollywood really needs no qualification.  Rather, going into more depth about his method might have offered more interesting avenues into understanding why he portrayed Langdon as (unconvincingly) he did.


The film also brings together international stars such as Jean Reno, Alfred Molina, and Audrey Tautou, but the story gives them strictly structural purposes, so they cannot be entirely to blame for the sense of boredom they both emanate. The constant pressure to act mysterious leaves the actors irresolute in the roles, and their reliance upon truncated back-stories for depth, as well as competition for screen time, gives them little opportunity to develop their characters further. Only the ridiculously named Sir Leigh Teabing comes to life, thanks in great part to the uplifting and playful presence of Sir Ian McKellen, who understands his role to be only as serious as he makes it. 


The DVD extras dedicate three featurettes to justifying their casting choices (down to the most insignificant villain), intoxication with their good luck, and self-congratulatory remarks about their dedication to casting actors of the nationality of their characters.  As in the case of Langdon, there is not depth enough to these characters to really speak much about them except in terms of how they function in the story, which at least provides technical insights into story telling, even if not intellectually satisfying ones into psychology.

For a film so full of potentially dangerous ideas, it does not project much danger, and treats itself with the utmost reverence while failing to do so.  The humorless dirge simply plods along, entirely certain of its own gravity. As a result, the story makes all of its potentially fantastic conceits, clandestine schemes, and intriguing plots excruciating to watch in their overwrought earnest: the flagellation of the albino monk, the discovery of the Holy Grail’s true resting place, and the secret ritualistic sex ceremony all induced laughter.  The overall effect is at times almost too calculated, too perfectly conceived, too manipulative, too sacrosanct and, as a result, too unexciting.


The greatest revelation of the DVD featurettes proves to be the dedication to authenticity and attention to detail that obviously went into the production of the film, from costumes to sets, to lighting and cinematography, to hidden inside jokes.  These pieces make it clear that the makers of this film really did have all their ducks in a row: a best-selling book to adapt, Ron Howard directing, Tom Hanks and an all-star cast, the cooperation of French government to allow for shooting in the Louvre itself, and the best crew in the business. 


However, all these obvious advantages only enhance the frustration with a final product that still seems to curiously miss that elusive, indefinable factor that makes a simply technically accomplished film great.  In attempting such a to-the-letter adaptation, the filmmakers have mistaken the virtues of one medium for another. 


For those who enjoyed the novel and the theatrical release, this deluxe edition offers a large amount of extras (almost two hours worth).  Yet the extras provide only superficial insight into the production of the film, and virtually nothing to intensify its mystery for the unconverted.

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