From left, Audrey Tautou, Tom Hanks and Ian McKellen star in Columbia Pictures' suspense thriller "The Da Vinci Code."
Paul Bettany plays Silas, a zealous monk.
Sophie Neveu, played by Audrey Tautou, strives to unlock the code.
Before deciphering director Ron Howard’s “The Da Vinci Code,” it is necessary to determine what the film is not.
First, it is not a nail-biting masterpiece of suspense. Honestly, how can it be? Even for those who have not read the book, both the premise and major plot points are well known.
More than a decade before Dan Brown’s best-selling “The Da Vinci Code” was published, in fact, the controversial nonfiction book “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” surfaced, assimilating and summarizing a host of myths, legends and conspiracy theories.
In recent months, a swarm of television specials have dissected the validity of the conjecture at the center of Brown’s book, highlighting every aspect and leaving few surprises for potential audience members.
Second, the film is not an action-packed thrill ride. Though the film features a few heated chase scenes, there is nothing here to get the pulse pounding. Looking for extended high-speed pursuits culminating in fiery explosions? Best try the Tom Cruise franchise playing in the next theater – the one making the walls shudder sporadically.
Finally, the film is not a documentary. This should be self-explanatory, but apparently it is not. A handful have already suggested the film should run a disclaimer at the beginning proclaiming itself a work of fiction. Ultimately, neither Dan Brown nor Ron Howard intended “The Da Vinci Code” to be taken as gospel. Readers and moviegoers alike must remember that a hypothesis sandwiched between two acknowledged facts is still just guesswork. In this instance, the fictitious suppositions provide a framework enabling the development of the central story.
So, what is the story? It is a mystery rolled up in an enigma, a work of speculative history and a theological drama. On some unexpected levels, it works well. Howard, for instance, manages to solicit some sympathy for each of the players by depicting them as driven by their own personal convictions. Righteousness, he shows, is a matter of perspective. Along those same philosophical lines, though, the movie clearly shows the dangers of obsession and fanaticism. Religious extremism inevitably leads to the violation of the very doctrines one holds most sacred.
Tom Hanks seems tragically out of place as the film’s protagonist Robert Langdon. Events transpire around him as he stands still, offering up little in the way of reaction. Stealing the show, as usual, is Ian McKellen as Sir Leigh Teabing, Langdon’s acquaintance and, conveniently, a devotee of grail lore. Jean Reno supplies a fine performance as the driven inspector Bezu Fache, and Paul Bettany plays a convincingly fixated zealot.
Audrey Tautou’s portrayal of Sophie Neveu might have been fantastic, if only she had been given more lines and more screen time.
For diehard fans of the book, the movie will not dissatisfy. Also entertained will be those who have never read the book and have spent the last six months living beneath a rock – or hiding beneath a keystone. Audiences will enjoy the brooding atmosphere, the intimations of secret histories and covert societies guarding ancient wisdom as well as the eventual revelation, no matter how predictable. At its core, the film holds an appealing and fascinating story. Unfortunately, it is difficult to sift through layers of monotonous explication to find it.
Overall, “The Da Vinci Code” is a good movie that sadly fell short of being great. Its secrets were prematurely revealed, its mystery bogged down in exposition. An admonition offered to all writers is “show, don’t tell.” There is far too much telling going on here. Character and plot development are eclipsed by the overriding, almost suffocating background information. Too many puzzle pieces impede “The Da Vinci Code” from achieving its potential.