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THE DA VINCI CODE

Review by Mark Wiechman

Stars:  Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, Ian McKellan, Alfred Molina, Jurgen
Prochnow, Paul Bettany, Jean Reno
Director:  Ron Howard
Video:  Color Widescreen, 2.40:1
Audio:  Dolby 5.1, 2.0, French, and Spanish spoken languages, English, French, Spanish, subtitles
Studio:  Universal
Features:  See Review
Length:  149 minutes plus special features
Release Date:  November 14, 2006

“So dark the con of man.”

Film *1/2

There may be no more controversial or ingenious book of the modern era than The Da Vinci Code, nor a more over-hyped movie release.  Despite the book’s introduction stating that only certain things in the book are facts, a whole cottage industry has sprung up decrying the book in whole or part.  For instance, author Dan Brown claims that all of his descriptions of artwork are accurate, but art curators have disagreed with the measurements Brown  provides.  He also claims that Opus Dei has been accused of brainwashing, but I have yet to discover any such credible reports of this.

Like many good writers, Brown weaves two seemingly unrelated milieus into a murder mystery.  In Angels and Demons he combines anti-matter  technology with a plot to destroy the Catholic Church from within (it’s not anti-Catholic actually, and his best book).  In Deception Point he combines politics with proof of extraterrestrial life landing on earth.  In The Da Vinci Code he combines codes in art with sex cults and ultra religious movements, all of which—or none of which—might be true.  The book may have caught on simply because everyone knows who Da Vinci was, and because he suggests that, as is vogue these days, that the Son of God had a girlfriend and thus may not have been so divine after all.   And suggesting that the Mona Lisa may have been Da Vinci as a woman and that St. John the Beloved in the Last Supper was actually a woman is so politically correct that modern readers were practically salivating over the book.

While I enjoyed the novel very much, I never confused it with fact because of its implausible and abrupt ending, which I will not divulge here.  The central thesis of the book—that the “holy grail” was not the communion cup of Christ but rather the body of Mary Magdalene, who was in fact the Bride of Christ and mother of his children—is explained in such convincing  detail that even a lifelong Catholic like myself must ponder whether it could be true, a secret so devastating that it would undermine the faith itself.  But like most conspiracy theories, it has just a few too many “well wouldn’t they like you to believe that” clauses in it to hold water, holy or otherwise.  I was also fascinated by Brown’s treatment of the “eternal feminine” idea and how the church may have consciously ignored it and demonized sexuality in general even as the early Christians saw it as a way to communicate with God. I found the book thrilling and I looked forward to the movie version.

Sadly, the first few scenes of the movie were entertaining but the  phrase “the book was better” came immediately to mind.  For starters, Tom Hanks is all wrong for the starring role of Professor Langdon, the Indiana Jones of the modern era.  He is neither charismatic nor brainy enough for this part.  He rattles off grand historical tales as if they were NFL scores.  When a safe deposit box is opened and he says “My God, a rose!” he barely raises his voice at all.  And his haircut, as many critics have pointed out, should have been shot before being used on his head.  He has never looked more  unattractive nor out of place.  

Audrey Tautou is also dull with neither the sex appeal nor the artsy intellectualism that the character calls for.  She seems cold and dull instead of mysterious and sensual.  Further, the scenes and dialogue unfold in a ta-da, ta-da rhythm as if everyone is just reading lines, instead of actually becoming characters.  Only Ian McMcKellan’s wonderful portrayal of the odd Teabing is entertaining and prevents the movie from being a wash, and his character explains the most controversial points of the story.    I think that Howard and company were overwhelmed and bewitched by the subject matter and Paris itself.  In one interview, he admits he often stayed up late and awoke early in his enthusiasm—but eventually energy wanes, and long hours take their toll, in my opinion.

This is Forrest Gump in reverse; a good book becomes an odd movie instead of an odd book becoming a great movie.   Many critics have voiced the opinion that Akiva Goldsman’s screenplay followed the book too literally and should have made the movie into something different, something more.  I agree with this
assessment.  But even as a film, it has many problems.  The pacing is very uneven, which is strange for a Ron Howard film, and even stranger since Howard and Hanks have worked well together before. 

Ironically, while so many of the clues in the story are visual, seeing them in the film does not help.  Perhaps the problem is that the whole story is so complicated compared with the Indiana Jones movies that it is better understood in written form than in a  fast moving movie with limited dialogue.  And whole pages of important explanation are completely jettisoned.  Hanks throws out phrases and ideas (“Monks… Rose… Da Vinci…”) and somehow links them together and we have no idea how.  Most characters, especially the Church leaders, come across as caricatures, with less than half the depth of the Death Star council in Star Wars even though they have more lines and they are talking about life, death, and salvation instead of droids.

I eagerly awaited the ending of the movie to see if it  followed the ending of the book, and it did.  But it contained almost none of its wondrously beautiful poetry which cements the novel together so beautifully that an atheist or Christian could love it.  Brown’s pacing and flow is masterful, and it is missing here.  The movie just…ends.  Yeah.

Having said all of this, if you have never read the book, you will probably enjoy the movie, but you will wonder why the book was in the top ten for years.

Video ****

Despite all of my criticism of the film’s content, you could not ask for a more beautifully filmed feature or a more clear transfer, especially since so much of it is at night or in dark rooms, or on foggy streets in France.

Audio ***1/2

The 5.1 mix used the rear channels well for effects, and soundtrack is well-heard, but often the dialogue is a bit mumbled, which is not helpful with so many strange dialects.  The soundtrack is interesting and appropriate but not terribly original or entrancing, much like the movie itself.

Features **1/2

There are ten behind the scenes featurettes:  First Day on the Set with Ron Howard; A Conversation with Dan Brown; How Tom Hanks became Robert Langdon, A Portrait of Langdon; The Codes of “The DaVinci Code”; Uncover the Hidden Symbols in the Film, Who is Sophie Neveu?, Unusual Suspects, Magical Places, Close-Up on Mona Lisa, Filmmakers Journey Parts 1 and 2, The Music of the Da Vinci Code, and DVD ROM The Da Vinci Code Puzzle Game PC Demo.

The interview with Dan Brown is a whole five minutes, but it is valuable since he so rarely gives interviews at all.  He reveals that he was raised Episcopalian and that he is working on a new thriller with the same main character, and that it takes place in America of all places.  He does talk briefly in many of the other featurettes though.  He is actually more animated than most of the actors, though, despite his praise for them.

Since I did not care for the movie that much the features naturally left me somewhat cold.   Ron Howard is always entertaining, and we do learn that some of the filming was actually done in the Louvre.  Dan Brown discusses how he came up with the Langdon character in the Langdon featurette.  But the best special features are actually the preview of new movies, including Spider Man 3, Ghost Rider, and Casino Royale.

Summary:

As the DVD began, we are advised that Dan Brown’s best book, Angels and Demons, is in production.  Hopefully it will fare better in translation.

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