Written by Akiva Goldsman
Directed by Ron Howard
Starring Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou and Ian McKellen
Writer's Note: I don't bother masking the conspiracy theory at the root of this film. Read at your own risk.
Ordinarily, I would think it grossly unfair to criticize a work directly regarding its translation from book to film. The literary medium offers its readers the opportunity to imagine the events unfolding any way they would like while the cinematic medium does all the imagining for you. In the case of Ron Howard’s adaptation of author Dan Brown’s international phenomenon, THE DA VINCI CODE, there isn’t much imagination happening on the filmmaker’s part though. Avoiding comparison here would actually be the great injustice as the immense anticipation that preceded the release of this film was all to do with the ultra-wide popularity of the book. Brown’s novel is easily digested. It’s lead characters, Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu, are being chased by numerous parties throughout lavish and romantic European settings. The chase and threat of capture keeps people turning the pages and the international flavour makes people feel as if in the presence of culture. For likely many others, and myself, these were the least intriguing elements of the book. What kept me coming back and barreling through hundreds of pages at a time was the book’s unapologetic and relentless blasphemy against the Christian faith. Brown immerses the viewer amidst characters and settings that exist to varying degrees in real life, thus blurring the lines between fiction and non. Somewhere in between the facts and the fabrications, Brown drops his theoretical bomb – that the ever-elusive Holy Grail, the cup of Jesus Christ, is in fact not a cup at all but rather a person, a woman. The woman in question is the infamous Mary Magdalene and the chalice is her womb, the carrier of the bloodline of Jesus Christ. Yes, you heard right, folks! Jesus got it on with the prostitute and she went on to have his child and their descendants are still here on earth today. I am not for attacks on Christians without purpose but this is not an attack so much as an alternate theory to the foundation their shaky religion rests upon.
I can understand why the Vatican is concerned about the impact this film could have. If you forget for a second, it’s easy to get sucked into all this lore and accept it as fact or at least as potentially true. That being said, it is borderline insulting of the Vatican to presume the filmgoing public is not intelligent enough to know the difference between history and plain story. Their concern is not for the entire filmgoing public though, it is more so for the middle of the road viewer who just passively absorbs images without thinking. When I think of these filmgoers, I think of the ideal Ron Howard fan. Howard doesn’t make bad movies (OK, HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS was bad) but he also doesn’t make spectacular movies (and no, I don’t have an example to refute that). THE DA VINCI CODE has all the elements one would expect from a large-scale Howard production, from big names to big locations. But what it attempts to mask with size is not a lack of substance but rather a lack of control over that substance. Howard coaxes performances from the cast that are inconsistent and hollow. As Langdon, Tom Hanks is sensible, curious and introspective. Ian McKellan plays Leigh Teabing, a Holy Grail expert as playful and cheeky. On the other hand, the usually deep Alfred Molina is farcical and Audrey Tautou looks lost and confused as Neveu; at times she barely seems to know where to stand.
One of the book’s major criticisms, aside from it relying too heavily on conspiracy theories and barely bothering with style, is that it reads like a high-spirited Hollywood blockbuster. Ironically, Howard’s film interpretation plays out nothing like one. It is tiring at times and stale at others. The hackneyed script by frequent Howard collaborator, Akiva Goldsman, cuts out numerous Grail factoids from the book that lend to the theory’s credibility, but yet still manages to get frequently bogged down in Grail history throughout the film. The result is slowed pacing during scenes that are meant to be suspenseful. Lengthy background explanations take place during car chases and moments when killers are waiting to attack in the next room, but the danger never presents itself until the explaining is all done (leading me to wonder if perhaps the attacker took a bathroom break). With the action forced to wait its turn, the viewer feels the flaws and loses their patience. Howard has taken a book that seemed to have been written with a film deal in mind and made a mess of the already carefully laid plans. As cheap as it is to say this, I must. You’re better off reading the book.