This can’t be this!
— Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks)
Where’s Ed Harris when you need him? Though The Da Vinci Code has enough plot for two movies, it also spends a lot of time inside its protagonist’s mind. As world-renowned symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) sets about solving a murder mystery, and oh yes, unraveling “the greatest secret in history,” he appears to be a very bright, thoughtful guy. Solemn and rigorous, he would seem an ideal object of aesthetic and intellectual scrutiny.
But when the movie looks inside Robert’s psyche — as when, for instance, he’s using his near-photographic memory to figure a piece of the puzzle before him — the imagery turns not sharp, but soupy and ridiculous. As he explains to his partner in pursuit, the French police cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), he has a nearly photographic memory, represented in this too-literal film as what he sees, for instance, bits of art or text floating and reassembling in some vaguely ooky head-space. The subjective imagery is corny (the FX frankly unconvincing), but what’s missing most painfully here is Ed Harris as Parcher, the grim-but-wry agent who showed up inside John Nash’s beautiful mind.
Parcher embodied for that Ron Howard movie its light touch and dark humor, its righteous suspicion of authority and sense that you couldn’t believe everything you saw. Through Parcher, and for all its solemn melodrama, A Beautiful Mind maintained a peculiar, edgy appeal. Da Vinci manages no such appeal.
Instead, adhering to the many plot events of the popular novel, the film is unwieldy and conventional, even ponderous, despite and because of the controversy surrounding it. The first glimpse into Robert suggests the problem: he stands at a lectern in Paris, speaking on the “sacred feminine,” the subject of his latest book. After baiting his audience to label a Klu Klux Klan robe a sign of “racism!” or a pitchfork the emblem of the “devil!”, he enlarges the frame on the slides behind him, to demonstrate that changing contexts will change meaning (his listeners appear especially eager to shout out their narrow judgments, which appears a device to show his open-mindedness, or maybe just his superiority). The performance — which closes with Robert’s admonition that decipherers of symbols must “penetrate” to find an “original truth” — is intercut with images of the corpse that will draw him into a life-altering adventure, a Louvre curator whom you’ve seen shot by a crazy-scary albino monk named Silas (Paul Bettany, who also had a better time in Beautiful Mind).
That the curator, Jacques Saunière (Jean-Pierre Marielle) happens to be Sophie’s estranged grandfather brings her to the murder scene, which is lucky for Robert, also called to the scene by the low-talking Captain Bezu Fache (Jean Reno), to… consult. The scholar, summoned during a post-lecture book-signing that demonstrates his popularity and wit, is briefly flattered, then daunted when he learns he is a suspect, owing to a note left by the victim. Sophie, however, warns Robert, and within minutes, they’ve run off into the Parisian night, eluding dumber-than-bags-of-hammers cops and tracking down the clues they’ve started to decipher in Da Vinci’s paintings. That is, the paintings indicated in Saunière’s hypercryptic scribblings and the fact that before his death, he arranged his own bloody, naked body to resemble Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Talk about elaborate.
“Symbols,” says Robert early on, “are a language that can help us understand our past.” Indeed. The film belabors this point, laying out a series of symbols and pasts, rejiggering artworks so they appear (at least in Robert’s mind) in nefarious or maybe mystical designs. The pasts are various and mostly tedious, offered in washed-out colors to denote their pastness and including Silas’ (he stabs his abusive father), Sophie’s (she cries at something her grandfather does and survives the horrific car crash that kills her parents and brother), Robert’s (he falls down a well), and oh yes, the planet’s (flashbacks introduced by narrated expositions show bits of the Crusades, witch hunts/burnings, religious wars, and vast conspiracies).
Incredibly, give the sheer numbers of digital and actual bodies amassed for the “historical” bits, the personal pasts tend to trump them, at least in terms of effects. For all the chatter about the Catholic Church’s cover-up regarding that big secret (it has to do with Jesus and Mary Magdalene), the action is predominantly instigated by characters overwhelmed by individual pathologies. Any potential institutional critique is lost in the rush of flashy neuroses, invidious iniquities (especially visible in the Bishop Aringarosa (Alfred Molina), and abject miseries (see: the oddly accented Silas, who skitters between seeing himself as an angel and a ghost).
You know Silas is miserable because, as he says upfront and repeatedly, he is prone to “chastise my body.” That he likes to do this naked in his monkish cell (he is, by the way and irrelevantly, a member of the sect Opus Dei, which apparently has no monks as such) and in front of his mirror suggests an inexplicable layering of transgressions: he’s vain, he’s damaged, he’s bloody (his instruments of self-torture are ingenious and painful), and he’s driven. He should be working for Dr. Evil rather than the Bishop, but after having saved Aringarosa from murderers (this also revealed in a grainy flashback), he’s been the man’s appointed assassin, killing off all who have access to even the most tangential knowledge of the secret.
Robert and Sophie’s route to such knowledge is circuitous, owing to the scavenger-huntish plot structure and the unbelievable complications of the “conspiracy” (and yet, Robert intones, “We’ve been dropped into a world where people think this stuff is real”). Eventually they come to a crotchety expert on the Holy Grail, Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen). Clever and self-congratulatory, Teabing appears a decent match for Robert, except that he is Ian McKellan on a pair of canes, and liable to see through the dreariness of the proceedings (on their arrival at the stately Chateau Villette, Teabing rejoices, “You travel with a maiden!”). He reveals to Robert and Sophie, using visual aids to lead the rest of us along, an intricate fabric of lies involving Christian theology, paganism, the papacy, Constantine, Da Vinci’s Last Supper, and Sir Isaac Newton’s funeral, not to mention a mini-lecture on the meanings of Vs and inverted Vs in paintings (Teabing reminds his rapt listeners, “The more penises you have, the higher you rank” — he does bring welcome humor to the proceedings).
As they peer into dark corners and sift through dusty tomes, Robert and company spend lots of time in high-ceilinged cathedrals. Sophie, who has her own difficult past with Catholicism, looks up into one such structure and wonders, “Why do they make them so scary?” This does seem a key question, having to do with myths and faiths. But the film seems only to accept the practice rather than addressing the question. In straining to make its spaces and secrets “scary,” Da Vinci literalizes thoughts and dreams, and abandons mystery and nuance.