The book by Dan Brown on which THE DA VINCI CODE is based will never be mistaken for a work of genius. It is not a work for the ages, but rather fills the guilty pleasure niche in the literary food chain. It’s a fast read with an intriguing premise where a great deal happens in a quick enough succession so that before the overriding implausibility factor kicks in, the plot is galumphing off in another direction with blithe insouciance. The same, alas, cannot be said of the film. And that’s a shame because there are all the making of a cracking good story here what with ancient conspiracies, power-mad princes of the Church, and the Holy Grail its own self.
Director Ron Howard has infused the proceedings with the pacing of a Gregorian chant and none of the passion. The plodding give the audience time to notice things that it shouldn’t if the filmmaker wants to keep them caught up in the story. Things like the opening salvo, which is that a man shot in the gut while running through the Louvre after hours somehow has enough time to not only drop clues on a few of the exhibits, but also to leave an encrypted message by his soon-to-be dead body, and THEN to shimmy out of his clothes in order to leave his corpse arranged like the Vitruvian man icon drawn by Leonardo. But that’s how things start and that’s how symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), on a tour in Paris promoting his latest book, is brought into the mystery of why the corpse got that way. He was M. Sauniere, a name that fans of the odd church at Rennes-le-Chateau in France will recognize, and the audience knows from seeing it happen that he was done in by an albino monk (Paul Bettany). The policeman (Jean Reno) in charge, though, is convinced that Robert was responsible. Fortunately for our hero, Sophie (Audrey Tautou), a police cryptographer, is convinced of his innocence for reasons that will become clear, but perhaps only if you’ve read the book. She helps him escape from the Louvre and together they begin a quest for the grail, though neither of them know that when they start sprinting.
The adaptation by Akiva Goldsman fails miserably in tying all the threads of the novel together. The subplot concerning a cardinal (Alfred Molina) on a quest of his own, and one considerably less holy than his office, is given such short shrift as to be all but incomprehensible. The script instead focuses in loving detail on the masochistic practices of his agent in the field, the gun-toting albino monk. Worse, fully one-third of the screen time is taken up with lessons in the alternative history of the Crusades in particular and the Church in general illustrated by singularly uninspiring flashbacks and a general tone of pedantry. The nadir of this is these performed by a violently wealthy eccentric Grail enthusiast (Ian McKellen), who, for reasons that defy explanation, has a multi-media presentation set up and ready to go in his French chateau where Robert and Sophie take refuge. The scholarly argument between the gentlemen for Sophie’s enlightenment is a monumentally, and painfully, inept attempt to integrate the exposition needed to propel the rest of the film.
Hanks’ performance inspires the question “Who shot this actor with a tranquilizer dart?”, while Tautou maintains a polite demeanor and a quizzical expression, as though she learned her lines phonetically and didn’t bother to find out what they meant.
What should have been a thriller with interesting people tracing improbable but interesting clues to an ending that is, if not a surprise, at least satisfying, is instead a two-and-a-half hour slog that tries the patience of even the most saintly in the audience. It takes a great deal of time, and travels to a great many locales, to do absolutely nothing worth seeing.