Ron Howard's page-by-page adaptation of The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown's mega-best-selling religious conspiracy thriller, begins, as it must, on page one. To wit: An elderly man is running fearfully along the Louvre Museum's famed parquet floors, pursued by a hooded albino monk. After a curious exchange between the two, the monk shoots the old man.
Meanwhile across town, famed Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is promoting his new book on the sacred feminine, when he is whisked away by the French police. His expertise is needed at the Louvre, where the old man has had the temerity to die surrounded by indecipherable symbols.
While Langdon is scratching his head, a police cryptologist, Sophie Nevue (Audrey Tautou) appears. Almost immediately the pair are plunged into a high-speed mystery spurred by their immediate resolution of the mysterious clues. Over the course of a long day, they dodge cops, bullets and nefarious clergy, all while dashing about Europe searching for the Holy Grail, and breathlessly catching us all up on two millennia-worth of religious history and conspiracy theory. My God, are they close to uncovering the greatest deception ever perpetrated on mankind? And if they do, will we even care?
Normally I resist comparing a film to the book it was adapted from ... after all, they are distinct works ... but nearly everybody except my mother has read Brown's novel, and will be traipsing to the megaplex with the book very much in their minds.
Howard certainly breaks no new ground: His workman-like film is a faithful, if somewhat abridged, adaptation. Much of the backstory about the Crusades, the Knights Templar, the Priory of Sion and other milestones in the Life of the Grail has been truncated. As needed, such information is simply told to us by the characters, and occasionally supplemented with literal and cheesy visual asides: Most resemble bad museum dioramas brought to life. In one instance, in grainy footage we see a cluster of fourth-century scholars in the proverbial smoke-filled room hammering out which texts would comprise the true gospel. Ahhh, got it.
Fans of the book are apt to be bored, and possibly annoyed that their favorite sub-sub-plot hit the cutting-room floor. Those new to the material risk confusion, and will undoubtedly be baffled about all the pre-hype: This is a big-budget, overly long B-movie stocked with cardboard characters and distinguished from its lesser shoot-'em-and-flee brethren only by a few side lectures on religious history.
Much as the book jumps every four pages from subplot to subplot, so too does Howard's film; in places, such hopping about puts the already overburdened plot in real peril. And, in its haste to cram all the plot into two-and-half hours, the film short-shrifts what may have been the novel's best feature: its various puzzles. At least Brown let you ponder what "so dark the con of man" painted in blood on the "Mona Lisa" might mean; Howard barely lets you see the words when ... whammy! ... there's the answer. Code is a mystery where the answers come faster than the clues.
I suppose the actors are fine, if all that's on the table is a literalization of Brown's novel, which itself offered virtually no character development, relationships or emotions more complex than fear and puzzlement. Hanks is as everyman as a renowned Harvard symbologist can be (and his much-buzzed about hair isn't as distracting as you feared); Tautou is the wide-eyed foil, who, in her accented English, fetchingly asks "Why?" and "How?" a lot. Paul Bettany has the thankless role as the self-flagellating albino monk, Silas, whose own history is so telescoped that he's left as a dour, bloodied cipher. Only the old stage vet Ian McKellan makes a meal of his role as Sir Lee Teabing, a wealthy old Brit obsessed with the Grail.
Really, when the Big Secret is revealed, you'd think it would be an emotional moment, something meaty for the actors to gnaw on. "Expressionless" best describes the performances, and since it's one of the few scenes in the film without any action to distract us, it's remarkably flat. (This is a good place in the film to reflect on how Monty Python and the Holy Grail remains the definitive cinematic text, and how its brilliant resolution can never be topped.)
Not surprisingly, what has been glossed over the most in the film's adaptation is the purported role of the Catholic Church, both in the historical narrative and in contemporary machinations vis-í -vis secretive Vatican conclaves, the Opus Dei organization and murderous monks. This takes the zing out the big reveal, which instead gets softly massaged into an ecumenical TV-movie moment. Any debate over the film's "blasphemous" premise would entail revealing important plot points, but suffice to say, I doubt this plain-Jane film will topple any established religion any time soon.
As a novel, Brown's work certainly provided plenty to carp about ... clunky writing, narrative cheats, a plot semi-borrowed from earlier texts, etc. ... but if you had only $10 to spend on The Da Vinci Code, there's a lot more entertainment value in reading the paperback than in seeing Howard's slideshow of it. In English, and some French and Latin, with subtitles.