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Film review

'Da Vinci Code': Opus dull

Now here's a mystery: Tom Hanks and Ron Howard effectively kill a bestselling novel in its adaptation to film.

Published May 19, 2006

React: Ill Literate blog
The film is getting some of the worst reviews in history.

Perhaps too faithful
Readers pored over Dan Brown's clues. Film viewers have no time to plumb the possibilities. Hit the pause button?
[Times photo illustration: Don Morris based on Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa]

Screening of 'The Da Vince Code' draws clergy
Members of the St. Petersburg Diocese take in the film version of the novel, with mixed reactions.
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Readers of The Da Vinci Code typically refer to Dan Brown's novel as a page-turner. Those pages likely flip both ways: backward to reread the baffling parts and forward when the plot starts plodding.

Unfortunately, movies aren't constructed as screen-turners. If so, Ron Howard's film adaptation of The Da Vinci Code would be a shorter movie. A more inert thriller is hard to imagine, with "action" defined as dense theological pingpong stiffly recited by actors with nothing to emote since there's no room left in the script after all those words.

How else to explain the colorless performance of Tom Hanks as Harvard symbology professor Robert Langdon? Normally an immensely inviting screen presence, Hanks spends the movie looking as if he's backing away from the project, as well as the people trying to kill his character. He is drained of all personality by an extraordinary burden of dialogue, in scenes that usually go somewhere without much encouragement to tag along.

Robert is conveniently in Paris for a lecture when a Louvre curator is murdered, his corpse splayed naked in ritualistic fashion near hand-scrawled gibberish. Robert is called upon by police inspector Bezu Fache Jean Reno to interpret the writing and interrupted by cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) with a warning that Robert is in danger. Howard's movie slows down when they go on the run.

Up to that point, The Da Vinci Code holds great promise, establishing a nicely paced editing rhythm and posing questions of faith and interpretation

that will come in handy later. Howard uses optical effects to illuminate the workings of Robert's mind as he deciphers the first clues. That we're being pulled into a mystery by undefined characters doesn't matter for the first reel, as Salvatore Totino's camera prowls Parisian locales, creating a sense of urgency when the dialogue doesn't.

Before long, it's obvious that striking settings and loads of exposition are all we'll get. Robert and Sophie are chased from France to England and back, picking up the next coded lead from Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa - "so dark the con of man" is a vital example - and buried in churches. Then they talk about what it could mean. Flashbacks to their personal childhood traumas are the extent of their personal interaction. They're the enigmas we can't decode - although the reason for one eventually is understandable - and that cripples our support for them.

"I must say, you two are anything but dull," a character says at one point. What movie is he watching?

The Da Vinci Code temporarily raises pulses with the arrival of Ian McKellen as Sir Leigh Teabing, a devotee of the religious conspiracy theory at the heart of the yarn. McKellen is the only actor who appears to take this material as the potboiler it is. The scene in which he explains clues hidden in Da Vinci's The Last Supper is the film's best sequence, using more optical effects to show what Teabing proposes. It's as if Howard occasionally reminds himself that film is a visual medium. Then he forgets again, and the screen may as well be book pages.

In a way, the turgid nature of The Da Vinci Code should please religious groups protesting the book and film's theme of Jesus and Mary Magdalene beginning a holy blood line. The concept as presented here is too dense, the ramifications barely addressed except by conspiratorial Opus Dei leaders driving fancy cars and playing billiards in ornate accommodations. Everyone wants to find the Holy Grail without knowing for a long time exactly what it is. The Da Vinci Code may or may not be blasphemy but the presentation here is boring.

That will be heresy for millions of Brown's fans, who should consider his central notion that pledging unquestioned faith isn't wise - especially in literary translations to screen. The same goes for those who have not read the book but figure a Tom Hanks movie directed by Ron Howard - gee, those guys were good together in Apollo 13 and Splash - is worth paying to see. After all, everybody's talking about it on TV and the previews look good.

So dark the con of moviegoers.

Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or

[Last modified May 18, 2006, 11:33:16]

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