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The Da Vinci Code Review

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by Mark Botwright May 15, 2009

    The Da Vinci Code Review
    What can one say about The Da Vinci Code that hasn't already been mentioned a thousand times before? Unless someone has spent the best part of the last five years in a reclusive state of hermitage then they will no doubt have read or perhaps intentionally avoided countless newspaper articles, television programmes and watercooler moments where the ubiquitous work is raised in conversation. Such was the impact of Dan Brown's original novel that it garnered great attention from that other ever present medium of story-telling - the cinematic industry. As soon as the name of the book was spreading across the world like wildfire, Hollywood started to become interested, not only because of the potential to tell a story that may entice viewers, but likely more importantly to the decision makers behind such machinations, to make a healthy profit. Wherever there is a tale to be told and it is entrenched in a medium that requires time and effort on the behalf of the audience, there will be those who seek to create a more accessible route for enjoying the narrative which will yield them substantial rewards even if the transformation in media is not entirely convincing. For such a snowballing phenomenon such as The Da Vinci Code it is enough to tell the tale in any manner, as people are always eager to know what their friends have been discussing with such vigour and enthusiasm.

    To this task steps the esteemed director Ron Howard. Having made his name almost synonymous with the struggle of an identifiable figure over the adversities that lie in his way, such as Apollo 13 and Cinderella Man, he would seem ably fitting as a choice for a tale that depicts a man who is evading and fighting against forces that are far in excess of his own powers. The basic narrative is that of our protagonist Robert Langdon, a symbologist and professor who is enlisted to aid in the investigation of a murder whose victim was found daubed in strange symbols and whose body had been intricately arranged in position. Understandably, when Howard came to cast for the role of this character, who better to look at than that intrinsic inhabitant of the everyman role than Tom Hanks? As an actor there can surely be few who have so seamlessly donned the persona of the identifiable American, a Joe Average who has raised himself to assail the obstacles that life has thrown in his way and inevitably becomes a heroic figure of courage in the process. The problem arises though when one considers that this is not simply a story of struggle and toil, but instead that of a thriller. It may contain, as any film of the this genre does, moments of necessary emotive courage and character development, but essentially the main component of such cinematic experiences is that of momentum and the believability of the central character. They need to be three dimensional as well as personable and also they must have that most elusive of ingredients - charisma. The great thrill rides of the silver screen and page turners of the literary world need a centre piece that draws the audience into the mix and becomes at once likeable yet complex, intelligent yet fallible. Perhaps the prime exponent of such figures is Harrison Ford, whose Indiana Jones characterisation is surely the landmark around which many modern tales that skirt around historical discovery used as an archetype of sorts. Similar to the Bond of Connery and the McClane of Willis, they are men who will inevitably be beaten from pillar to post yet have enough believable ingenuity to scrape through in the end. The journey must never be simple though and the outcome needs to be questionable. I'm afraid Hank's depiction of Langdon leaves neither ingredient on the table and instead becomes more one of plot exposition. I have always been a fan of his acting and feel a little sorry for him in this film as he is far from aided by a script that can become unintentionally laughable.

    The duty of wording the characters and plot went to Akiva Goldsman. On paper at least it seems like an ideal combination to add to the already potent duo of Howard and Hanks. Given that Howard has collaborated with Goldsman before and that the scribe was responsible for the screenplay of A Beautiful Mind, for which he won an Oscar, this looks to be an almost ideal workforce to bring the novel to the screen. This though was not to be the case. How or where the problem arises is a little hard to fathom. One can only imagine that Goldsman eschewed his style that brought us the scripts for Cinderella Man and A Beautiful Mind and instead travelled back in time to once more become the man who inflicted the dialogue of Lost In Space and Batman and Robin upon the paying public. Dire times indeed. Perhaps the stumbling block which was never traversed was the source material itself. I have little knowledge of how much input Dan Brown had in the project but the words seem far removed from Goldsman's recent works. There have been many literary critic's spleens that have seemingly exploded with bile at the thought of the success of the book and most of the established literary press, even when begrudgingly admitting to the story's page turner appeal, decry Brown's writing of characters as unrefined. The key that is fumbled though is not simply that of propelling source material to another medium but that of timing. There is simply too much to be packed in that Howard and Goldsman are unable to inject any subtlety into the proceedings. We are whisked form one locale to the next, with nary time to breath and the end result is one of underdeveloped characters speaking purely functional lines. It is only momentarily that we see something that has anything other than plot exposition at its core on the screen and when these brief moments arise, they generally add little to the emotional depth of the characters, with perhaps the exception of the assassin monk who is pursuing our heroes.

    In order to create a labyrinthine plot which keeps the viewer guessing to the final reel, many great actors are kept in the wings. The cast reads like a dream ensemble, Hanks is ably assisted throughout his journey by a female cryptologist played by Audrey Tautou, Jean Reno is the cop hunting down his man, Alfred Molina pulls strings as a Machiavellian bishop, Ian McKellen joins us as a mad grail hunter and finally Paul Bettany dons a monk's robes and leads a murderous spree across the continent. It sounds mouth watering on paper, but once again, the transition to the screen befouls almost all but Bettany and Molina's roles. Reno walks through yet another weary cop performance, the bags under his eyes rarely pulling themselves out of second gear. Tautou has some of the clunkiest lines, acting as a way in for the audience to get to know Langdon and what he is thinking rather than a three dimensional character in her own right. It is a moment bordering on hilarity when a cryptologist seems genuinely amazed at the idea of an anagram and simply stands in awe as someone else attempts to decipher it. McKellen hams it up to the best of his ability and one can only imagine that he took this to be the fluff that it is, as Brown created the most ridiculously caricatured Englishman possible, going so far as to serve bangers and mash to his guests and talk of tea. The components aren't necessarily wrong in their inclusion, witness the bumbling Englishman role of Marcus in Indiana Jones, rather they are simply poorly executed at almost every turn.

    I love historical thrillers and gladly lap up any over-egged grail/Templar conspiracy thriller I can possibly read/watch. This though was a bridge too far for me. Criticisms of source material seem a little out of bounds, but one cannot evade the fact that Brown claims much of this to be based on truth. Other than particular paintings and locations existing, the overwhelming majority of what is displayed is pure fiction. I have no problem with this. What I do have to malign the experience for was it being constructed from bad fiction. Pushing hokum in the faces of viewers is a delicate task that either has to move towards a comic book bent or that of historical accuracy, this does neither and suffers for it. The processes taken to painstakingly lead the viewer through the maze-like puzzles are all to the detriment of characterisation and the intelligence of the viewer. One hardly has to continue mentioning Leonardo Da Vinci with his full title as if we have met some other Leonardo during our travels with Langdon or exclaiming how incredible an anagram is, that is of a sub Countdown level.

    If there is a saving grace for what could have been truly interminable, it is that of the cinematography and budget. The locations used occasionally give us shots that are aesthetically beautiful and the gloss and sheen to the production help lift the experience to that of a rollercoaster ride that can at times simply be enjoyed rather than thought about. Ultimately though, other than budget, all other aspects of this film are better expounded elsewhere. Art, architecture, religious and historical themes are all better explored through documentaries and tension, thrills and emotional depth are also better left to other examples of the genre. My lasting feeling of having sat through nigh on three hours of this was simply a hankering to read Foucault's Pendulum again and watch Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade to witness how to make such a grail chase correctly, without pretension and with a genuinely likeable three dimensional figure at the centre of proceedings. Perhaps Howard, Goldsman and the stellar cast of acting luminaries have simply been dealt a poor hand by the original material - how often have you heard of a film that manages to paper over the cracks of the book on which it was based. For those who are fans of Brown's work, I'm sure there will be enough here to discuss with others of the same viewpoint. For me it was simply a case of “you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear”. At least it raised a smile from me with a line I thought I'd never hear in a thriller; “I have to get to a library...fast!”