Film makers are constantly under fire when they turn best sellers into movies. Fans of the book version are usually incensed because the movie doesn’t stay true to the original material. But The Da Vinci Code is a good example of why it is often necessary to re-imagine a book for film. While it doesn’t stay too close to Dan Brown’s best seller, it stays close enough – and that’s the trouble.
A book can take its time getting to the point, and waste a few thousand words carefully explaining things to the reader. But a movie that does that is slowed down, and The Da Vinci Code barely seems to move at all. Ron Howard, an experienced director who usually doesn’t disappoint, does his darndest to get this juggernaut moving at a cracking pace, but actually he needed to jettison a lot more of the load.
The movie comes across as a long winded Discovery Channel docu-drama with mega stars. But even the likes of Tom Hanks as Dr Robert Langdon can’t save it. He looks most uncomfortable. Hanks always seem so at home in his roles, but not here. He looks as if he is wearing a suit that doesn’t fit properly.
He is supposed to be the hero, but apart from his ability to decipher codes and symbols, we’re not exactly sure why he is there. In the book, Dan Brown’s cardboard cut out character works – in the movie, even with Hanks trying valiantly to give the man some soul and substance, he’s just a by stander who happened to get caught up in everyone else’s story.
Audrey Tautoo, as Sophie, fares a little better because at least she has direct links to the quest for the Holy Grail, the premise that drives this story. These characters come with a lot of baggage, according to the flashbacks of childhood trauma that have little or nothing to do with the matter in hand. It falls to the bad guys to manage to overcome this cookie cutter characterization and deliver solid performances.
Jurgen Prochnow is always a pleasure to see. Even this slow plodder of a movie brightens up when he makes his first appearance. The role of the twisted, self-abusing albino monk Silas looked like a hard one to cast, but Paul Brittany is the obvious choice. He is scary and menacing, but the ever dependable Alfred Molina as Aringarosa is much more so, because he is a civilized man and a Bishop.
But it is the marvelous Ian McKellen, limping along on crutches as Sir Leigh Teabing, that gives this movie a sorely needed energy boost. Even the overlaid historical documentary and narration becomes watchable in his skilled hands.
But sadly, it is this very scene – when Teabing is decoding Da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper to Sophie - that everything completely unravels. It’s a clever scene, with McKellen’s fine old whiskey voice hypnotizing the listener, and manipulation of the painting that is engrossing and fascinating – for a moment you almost believe Da Vinci was there at the Last Supper and took a snapshot of Christ and his Apostles. But of course that is nonsense – the painting says far more about Da Vinci and his subtle mockery of the Church than it does about the last night of Christ. Once this realization sinks in, everything else just falls apart.
Basically, as everyone who has read the book and the resulting lawsuit with interest, Brown took the oft postulated view that Christ survived his crucifixion, married Mary Magdalene and had a child. If this is true then it is possible that Christ’s DNA has been passed down through the centuries, and that descendants are alive today. This is the `Holy Grail’ – the blood of Christ which some unknown someone carries today.
Brown’s intention was to take this view of the Grail, which has been well documented by other sources, on a rousing adventure. The movie attempts to do the same, but with the necessary trimming of some of the features of the book, it makes the flaws far more obvious. Tension lags badly in the first half, when escapes are far too easily accomplished because the bad guys behave far too predictably. Even the supposedly shocking revelations of who the bad guys are raise barely a yawn.
Stephen Spielberg did a far better job with Harrison Ford and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He should have bought the rights, slapped a hat on Harrison and taken charge of this one himself.