Review: The Da Vinci Code
"What if it turns out that the greatest story ever told is a lie?" asks a character in The Da Vinci Code with great fervor. That's not a question I've ever lost any sleep over and how much you enjoy this film, which isn't as bad as initial reports have suggested, will depend on your interest in "the greatest story" and the premise of the movie - that Jesus and Mary Magdalene married and that their descendents are still alive. If this is of no particular import to you, then all the running around trying to find where Mary Magdalene's bones are buried becomes just a MacGuffin, the term Alfred Hitchcock popularized for any device that drives a plot. In fact, as secrets are revealed and plot twists unfold during the two-and-ahalf hour film, you may find time to muse on the fact that living people who can trace their ancestry back to Jesus could be the premise for a great comedy, something in the irreverent style of Monty Python's Life of Brian.
But the approach that director Ron Howard takes in his adaptation of The Da Vinci Code is utterly reverent, as if he were so afraid of offending someone, he couldn't manage to make this movie very entertaining. Howard, who started his career with comedies such as Night Shift and Splash and eventually won acclaim for the dramas Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind, seems constricted here and you would never guess from Da Vinci that his movies are usually infused with humor and energy.
The irony is that in spite of Howard's restraint, Catholic groups have been deeply upset over the film and have demonstrated against it, since the idea that Jesus had descendents runs contrary to the teachings of mainstream Christianity. These protests have brought the film intense publicity that money could never buy. But other than the theological dispute, protestors also contend that the Catholic Church is portrayed unfairly here. Again, unfair portrayals of the Vatican are low on my list of worries and I imagine that the Catholic Church, which has survived thousands of years of protest and criticism, can probably weather another movie in which high Vatican officials are shown to be shadowy, murderous conspirators who wear silly hats.
The truth is that the filmmakers do take pains to point out that the villainous characters are members of an extreme sect called Opus Dei. Although representatives of the group have protested their portrayal in the film, they do admit that some members flagellate themselves and inflict various other kinds of harm on their flesh, so that their members can empathize with Jesus' suffering. Some of this self-mortification is shown in close-up in the film and potential viewers should be warned: These scenes are far more stomach-churning than any of the on-screen murders.
Controversy and theology aside, Da Vinci does have its moments, although the entire enterprise is talky and a bit enervated, as if the filmmakers grew exhausted from all the hype. There's also the problem of introducing the religious/historical elements of the plot to those who haven't read the book. Tom Hanks, sporting odd, long hair, plays Robert Langdon, a professor of religious symbology, who is in Paris on a book tour when an acquaintance of his, Jacques Sauniere (Jean-Pierre Marielle) , is murdered in the Louvre by an albino monk. The murder victim is discovered with esoteric symbols carved all over himself and a sinister French detective (Jean Reno) asks Langdon to help decipher them. Once they are inside the dark, deserted Louvre, they are joined by the murdered man's granddaughter, cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou,) who warns Langdon that the French police are set to arrest him and he must flee. After they manage to send the cops off on a wild goose chase, they find a series of messages scrawled in code on the walls by the dead man. As they pursue the meaning of these messages, they are targeted by the monk and other members of Opus Dei, including a tubby and uncharacteristically phlegmatic Alfred Molina, as a high Vatican official.
This is all interesting enough and the cinematography, interiors, costumes, etc. are as top notch as you would imagine them to be. If the movie doesn't really catch fire, it's due in part to Tom Hanks, who looks waxy and tired, as if he were getting the flu. Although he projects his usual amiability, that's all he projects. Again, it's as if everyone were constrained by the solemnity of the themes involved. Paul Bettany is suitably creepy as the albino monk-murderer (you may remember him as the best friend/hallucination of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind), but even he doesn't quite generate the menace you would expect.
The movie finally gets going when Langdon and Sophie drop by to visit Langdon's wealthy scholar pal, Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellan), who manages to energize the proceedings and inject a little wit into his performance. But although he has a key role, he isn't on screen enough to save the movie from the doldrums.
In spite of its flaws, there is something endearing about a mainstream movie that makes frequent references to art (several Da Vinci paintings are lovingly photographed) and history. It's charming, if a bit improbable, to hear the Hanks character exclaim, "I need to get to a library right away!" And, as many critics have pointed out, this has to be the first (as well as the last?) movie to show a character speaking in Latin on a cell phone.