Let’s get it out of the way right here at the outset: I am one of four living human beings who has never read The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown’s novel which has sold so many copies that I think they’ve just stopped counting. Only a book that contains controversy and excitement can sell that well, but my knowledge of Brown’s narrative was limited at best as I entered the screening room. Now that I have viewed director Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldman’s take on the material, I can say with certainty that it is rather self-explanatory as to why the book is such common conversational fodder.
The story, which has enough twists, turns, and double-crosses for three novels, begins with a murder at the Louvre. The victim is Jacques Sauniere, a curator at the establishment. He is shot, but before his death he scrawls several symbols on his body. Called in to investigate the symbols is Robert Langdon (Hanks), a Harvard professor and expert in the field. Along with Sophie Neveu (Tautou), the granddaughter of Sauniere, the two begin to unravel a religious mystery, sparked by Leonardo Da Vinci’s works, which may call in to question Christianity as we know it. To expound from here is unnecessary, as most of Brown’s “claims” (the novel is classified in the “fiction” section) are better left to be discovered and analyzed on a personal level.
I did analyze it, and I find the whole thing to be silly, albeit compelling and entertaining. This is what we go to the movies for, but since it deals with religion and the prospect of debunking modern Christianity, the hoopla is beyond compare. I find it healthy to question common beliefs, religious or otherwise. It seems borderline spooky that this novel, which was released a few years, is now being released as a film incarnation around the same time that we are seeing a resurgence of 9/11 conspiracy talk. Will people become more open and fearless in questioning seemingly common, cemented beliefs?
Director Ron Howard takes an appropriate, leisurely approach to the material. This is a talky film that is suspenseful through speech rather than action, and Howard lets it play out in long, often cyclical scenes. Goldsman’s script teeters on the edge of information overload, but thanks to some nifty, unobtrusive special effects we get things illustrated almost as if we are looking at screen shots of pages from a book. Howard has always had a knack for pulling suspense out of thin air (see Apollo 13), and he maintains an underlying sense of urgency throughout The Da Vinci Code. It would have been easy for a director to take this book and make it into a slam-bang summer action adventure, but I give Howard credit for keeping the story grounded in human interaction and revelation.
Tom Hanks portrays Langdon as deadly serious with a dash of monotone in his voice, but his performance drives much of the suspense. He is clearly anxious to decipher the code, but he never seems remarkably surprised by what is discovered. He is the perfect foil for Sophie, who is deep in question regarding religion. She is played with subtle authority by Audrey Tautou, an established French actress whom I was unfamiliar with prior to this film. Ian McKellen brings along a sense of humor and a lot of fun to the character of Sir Leigh Teabing, a wealthy man who has devoted his life to figuring out the essence of The Holy Grail. Paul Bettany also deserves mention as the creepy Silas, a martyr of sorts who personifies the darker side of organized, outsider religion.
Everyone will take what The Da Vinci Code has to say in a different way. To interpret the story as “gospel,” if you will, would seem to me to be foolish, but as a form of entertainment it weaves a solid story. So often we critics keep begging for intelligent, potent films, and now we finally get one that predominately gets the job done. It doesn’t fit the standard mold of the summer season (this seems much more like a Fall release), but The Da Vinci Code is a mystery worth the indulgence.
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Length: 149 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for disturbing images, violence, some nudity, thematic material, brief drug references and sexual content.
Theatrical Release: May 19, 2006
Directed by: Ron Howard
Written by: Akiva Goldsman. Based upon the novel by Dan Brown.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, Ian McKellen, Alfred Molina, Jürgen Prochnow, Paul Bettany