Tuesday 11 October 2016

From the archive: "The Da Vinci Code"

Hollywood executives must love it when precisely no brain power is required of them in their daily working. Few synapses would have been tested in greenlighting The Da Vinci Code, the film of the book everybody in the Western world bought just to see why everybody else was reading it. (Did we ever arrive at an explanation for that, by the way?) You can see the logic: if every person who picked up a copy of Dan Brown's novel in an airport departure lounge or WHSmith 3-for-2 offer was to buy a ticket for the movie, then the movie would be well on its way to becoming one of the biggest grossing blockbusters of all time. The fatal flaw in this reasoning concerns not how many people worldwide have bought and read The Da Vinci Code, but the number of people worldwide who've read The Da Vinci Code twice. Whether the book is supremely readable or unreadable claptrap - and I've heard strong arguments proposed on both sides - its mystery cannot surely deepen appreciably on a second, cinematic run through. Those who've read the book will already be aware of what happens in the movie. Those who haven't are unlikely to be converted by a very dull, occasionally silly and punishingly long film.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should admit - if you haven't already guessed - that I fall into the latter camp. (Hey, there are novels by Flaubert and Dostoyevsky I haven't read yet, all of which I intend to get round to once I've finished the latest Viz.) Still, friends tell me one of the book's strengths is its interactivity - that buzzword of the modern era. However shoddy Brown's plotting, however clunky his writing, the reader could nonetheless join in with working out the anagrams and riddles that sustain the writer's narrative. I cannot for the life of me see how a film or an audience would benefit from sending Forrest Gump and Amelie Poulain to do all this thinking for us. For, yes, we now have Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon, an American cryptologist in Paris who's framed for the murder of a curator in the Louvre, although Batman & Robin scribe Akiva Goldsman's adaptation is so clumsy that, several days after watching the film, I still have no idea why Langdon is the chosen stooge. (Maybe it's just that he happened to be in town on a booksigning tour; had Opus Dei waited a week to bump the curator off, they would have had to frame Katie Price, say, or Alain de Botton.)

Anyway, Langdon is helped to evade police custody - and thereby granted time to work out the clues the curator left behind - by the gaminely unconvincing Parisian cop Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou, for it is elle). Over the course of the two-and-a-half hours of Ron Howard's film, our hero will bump up against a variety of dogma, not to mention a rogues' gallery of supporting performers. Paul Bettany - bless him - is the self-flagellating albino monk and part-time hitman Silas, who for some reason shoots the curator in the gut rather than head, thereby allowing him plenty of time to take one last tour of the gallery setting the entire plot up. Ian McKellen plays a temperamental chateau-owner referred to as Leigh Teabing. (That's Leigh Teabing.) Alfred Molina is the Catholic bishop Aringarosa - bless you - trying to keep a mortal secret from getting out. These characterisations are vivid in a lukewarm pulp sort of way, but they cannot conceal what's always bugged Brown sceptics: that the plot of The Da Vinci Code is pure bunkum (high-flown conspiracy) built on top of something that already demands a, let's say, heightened level of belief (organised religion).

With a smidgen more reality - if the cover-up had been engineered by a government, rather than the Church - the film might be borderline credible, as Hollywood runarounds go. If it had displayed any trace of humour, it could have been just as much infectious fun as the Nic Cage codebreaker National Treasure. As it is, we're left with a film where the big twist centres on a number of utterly spurious claims - whom Jesus once had over for dinner, and (somewhat more controversially) whether Leonardo da Vinci wasn't as good as Brian Sewell says, particularly in the matter of differentiating between male and female subjects. (The correct response, at every turn, is "oh, come on", if not "well, who cares?") And where the book apparently made a virtue of rollicking along, Goldsman supposes this is one of those plots that requires continual explanation, and so the film keeps sitting its characters down so someone can talk us through another section of the complex waffle that forms Brown's backstory. The location varies, but the stop-and-sit principle applies throughout: in the back of an armored van; on a bench at midnight in the Bois de Boulogne; on a plane; over tea and biscuits at Gandalf's - sorry, Leigh Teabing's - house.

Alternatively, we're offered flashbacks, endless, unnecessary flashbacks to illustrate some washed-out religious pageant or justify the present-day action. You get a feel for the imagination Howard and Goldsman credit their audience with in a scene that cuts from Langdon and Neveu escaping from an airport in a car to the flashback that picks apart how they got there: by, erm, getting out of a plane and then running across to the car. Star power, a flicker of chemistry, might have got us to overlook the monumental dumbness of it all, but Hanks, in his all-black outfit and extreme hairdo, has the look of an underemployed football pundit; he'd surely be more at home pontificating on England's World Cup chances than solving Sudoku puzzles pertaining to the Son of God. And even those of us with a weakness for French actresses speaking in English will have to concede that Tautou is beyond all hope here: as performances in a second language go, this is very nearly as awkward as Zhang Ziyi's turn in Memoirs of a Geisha; these words - not great words to begin with - just don't sit right in her mouth. One comes to The Da Vinci Code expecting revelation, perhaps some explanation of why the book was so damn popular, but Howard's film can offer nothing so exciting as that. Instead, after all those hours in the High Court, all the money spent by Sony on promotion, all those high-powered edicts delivered by senior representatives of the Church, what seemed like endless documentaries on Channels Four and Five, one comes to conclude this is one of those occasional cultural phenomena that lead one to look to the heavens and cry out in vain: come on, people, was it really worth this much fuss?

(May 2006)

The Da Vinci Code is available on DVD through Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.  

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