Like about a zillion other people in the world, I read Dan Brown's page-turning
novel about a modern-day search for the Holy Grail,
THE DA VINCI CODE. The
book is plot-driven; no one would accuse Brown of being an author on par with
great contemporary writers. But, he is a good story teller and the book was a
perfect summer read. In my case, as a lapsed Roman Catholic, it merely reinforced
some of the issues I had over the role of women in the Church. Having attended
parochial schools for a dozen years, I was pretty much aware of history, dogma
and some of the decisions that were made over the years. As an English major,
I've also studied the Bible as literature, and there are many issues over the various
translations that have been passed down for generations.

  In adapting the novel for the big screen, Avika Goldsman has been more or
less faithful to the source material -- which is a double-edged sword. There seems
to be a general rule among critics that the more faithful to the original source
material the film is, the worse the movie. (For example, look at the drubbing
Chris Columbus over the first two entries in the Harry Potter franchise.) When a
writer remains true thematically but alters aspects of the novel for cinematic
purposes (in the way Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor did with Louis Begley's
ABOUT SCHMIDT), then reviewers fall over themselves to praise the results.
Compacting any novel into a motion picture is challenge enough, and I contend
that often people (including critics) don't always realize the difficulties to the
process. It is an art form, to be sure. Goldsman faced a monumental challenge.
He had to turn a plot-driven quest story into a popular entertainment.
Undoubtedly he did his best, but the results on screen lack something.

  Over the course of two and one-half hours, the film version of
THE DA VINCI CODE unfolds in a series of dull and unengaging episodes.
Solving puzzles may work on the page but cinematically, it is not interesting.
The first hour plods along, setting up the story and bringing the hero, Robert
Langdon (a miscast Tom Hanks), and the heroine, Sophie Nevue (Audrey
Tautou), together to start off on their quest to discover the secret of the
Holy Grail. Brown's novel was paced well and plotted to an inch of its life with
coincidences and other fictional devices that work for the reader. But a film is
a different sort of animal and Goldsman and director Ron Howard (who
perhaps should have passed on this project) cannot find the means to make
these contrivances work on screen.

  For anyone who doesn't know the plot, in a nutshell, it goes something like
this: An elderly curator (Jean-Pierre Marielle) at the Louvre is murdered in the
museum. Before he expires, he hides a series of clues in the forms of anagrams
and other puzzles around the galleries, then arranges his body to resemble
Leonardo Da Vinci's famous drawing the
Vitruvian Man. The head of the
investigation, the improbably named Bezu Fache (Jean Reno) suspects the
killer is Langdon and arranges for the Harvard professor to see the crime
scene. The arrival of cryptologist Sophie -- who has familial ties to the victim --
disrupts the investigation and she persuades Langdon that he is being set up.
They manage to elude the French police, attempt to solve the puzzles left by
the dead man, including finding a clue written on the glass covering the
Mona Lisa, and eventually discover a key to a safe deposit box behind
Da Vinci's
Madonna of the Rocks.

  They they set off on their "treasure hunt" to uncover the mystery behind
what is in the box (a cryptex, a word coined by Brown in the novel meaning a
sort of portable vault that requires a code to open). The "cryptex" supposedly
contained a map to location of the Grail, at least according to Sir Leigh Teabing
(Ian McKellen), a mentor to whom Langdon turns for assistance.

  It is at this point that the film starts to come alive. McKellen injects vibrancy
and even a hint of much-needed humor with his performance as the crippled
academic. (Perhaps it might be of interest to note that his character's name
is Brown's homage to Richard Leigh and Michael Baigent, the authors of
Holy Blood, Holy Grail, who unsuccessfully sued Brown for plagiarism in a British
court.) While he is onscreen, McKellen livens things up considerably, and when
his character departs the scene, the film once again flags.

  THE DA VINCI CODE had the potential to be a good potboiler of a
film -- a fascinating  B-movie quest, but something was lost in the translation
to the screen. Hanks may have seemed like a bold choice to portray Langdon,
but he seems at sea as how to portray him. It's a rare misstep for the actor.
Tautou doesn't seem particularly comfortable speaking English and the spunk
and joy she has brought to role in French movies is lost. She looks beautiful,
though, but she too is miscast. Paul Bettany portrays an albino monk who
functions as an assassin and he is particularly creepy, but the role is more
plot device than character. Reno appears to be phoning in his performance
as the chief investigator, and good actors like Jürgen Prochnow and Alfred
Molina are given little to do in supporting parts.

  As to Brown's theories about a relationship between Mary Magdalene
and Jesus, I have my own opinions. It is certainly clear that Mary Magdalene
has not been treated well by the Church over the years. There's nothing in the
texts of the New Testament that indicates she was a former prostitute. This
was a tradition that dates back to the men who ruled the Church in the
Third Century. Whatever the case (and I'm doubtful that anyone can ever
really know exactly what happened as there are no primary sources dating
from that period), the book and by extension, the film, might at least spark
some debate. As cinema, though,
THE DA VINCI CODE falls short of
expectations. It's not an unmitigated disaster, but neither is it a success either.


                  Rating:                          C -
                  MPAA Rating:              PG-13 for disturbing images, violence, some
                                                                          nudity, thematic material, brief drug
                                                                          references and sexual content
                  Running time:              149 mins.


                                Viewed at AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13
The Da Vinci Code
©  2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.