Tuesday, 11 November 2014

THRILLER: The Da Vinci Code (2006)

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The Da Vinci Code (USA, 2006)
Directed by Ron Howard
Starring Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, Ian McKellen, Alfred Molina

Film adaptations of bestselling books are very often rushed, sub-par affairs. When a book becomes a bestseller, being widely advertised and talked about everywhere, the pressure is often on to make the film quickly, before the hype begins to fade and chances of a big opening weekend are dashed. Directors often react to this tight tournaround by slavishly reproducing on screen the words that are on the page, resulting in works like One Day and the first two Harry Potter films which don't use cinematic storytelling effectively to justify their stories outside of their hype.

 
You'd like to think that Ron Howard, one of the most successful and populist directors around, wouldn't fall into this trap. He is, after all, the man who produced a cracking drama in Apollo 13 despite sticking rigidly to the in-flight transcripts of the Apollo crew. Having turned his talents to subjects as varied as mermaids, firemen and mathematics, you wouldn't bet against him being a dab hand at the theological thriller. But whatever the appeal of its source material, The Da Vinci Code is a total clunker.
 
Like so many of its predecessors, any discussion of The Da Vinci Code has to begin with a dismissal of the religious hysteria surrounding it. It's certainly not the first film that's drawn the ire of the Catholic Church, and based upon said church's ridiculous response, it won't be the last. We are dealing with an organisation which stationed nuns outside screenings of The Exorcist in America, sprinkling paying punters with holy water as they went in and giving them support numbers to call on their way out.
 
By calling for a boycott of the film, the Catholic Church (or individuals and elements therein) played completely into the hands of both the filmmakers and the church's critics. Such a gesture, on whatever grounds, serves to paint Christians as thin-skinned sheep, seeking to shut down a debate which they should be having and encouraging. The smart thing that any Christian should have done then, and should do now, is to give the film a fair run, if only so it can prove how ridiculous it is, and then use it to start a dialogue that potentially could open up the Gospel to people for real.
 
The claims of Dan Brown's book have been comprehensively dispelled by numerous authors and documentary filmmakers, with even sections of the church pointing out inconsistences and misappropriations in his work. There is no evidence at all that Jesus had a physical bloodline, or for a physical relationship with Mary Magdalene, or for the existence of a Holy Grail, whether physical or conceptual. But even if any one or more of these were true, to worry obsessively over them is to miss the point, focussing on superficial matters rather than the deeper truth of Christianity.
 
Of course, from a filmmaking point of view, it doesn't matter in the slightest that Brown's ideas are fanciful beyond belief. Many films have used bizarre, apocryphal or just downright silly aspects of religion to tell a gripping story and often illuminate a deeper truth. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade has very little basis in historical fact, but it's still a powerful statement about faith and the dangers of placing material gain before spiritual fulfillment. Likewise, The Last Temptation of Christ speculated on Jesus having sexual relationships, but it used this provocative idea to explore temptation, desire and the burden the Messiah faced during his time on Earth.
 
The most illuminating comparison here, however, is with The Ninth Gate, Roman Polanski's preposterous late-1990s thriller about a gateway to demonic power contained in books. While its initial premise was promising and its first ten minutes forbidding, the film quickly descended into a quagmire of plot holes and poor special effects, culminating in a totally botched ending. But while The Ninth Gate sees Polanski showing contempt for both his audience and the material, The Da Vinci Code commits the far lesser sin of well-meaning incompetence.
 
The first and biggest problem with The Da Vinci Code is that it treats its audience like idiots. Every single detail of the plot is spoon-fed to us as if we are incapable of joining the dots ourselves. While there is a lot of terminology to deal with, and therefore some exposition can be justified, having actors do nothing but explain the plot does not make for compelling drama. The screenplay comes from Akiva Goldsman, who did a good job on A Beautiful Mind but also wrote Batman and Robin.
 
A related problem is that the film takes itself far too seriously. Any theological thriller worth its salt has to acknowledge the suspension of disbelief needed to accept its ideas, or at least must offer something on a structural level to keep our attention if we can't. But while Last Crusade could be enjoyed as both a big adventure and a moral insight, The Da Vinci Code demands that you take it seriously and comes out all the more po-faced and boring as a result.
 
Brown did the production no favours in this regard, claiming that "all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals are accurate." Had the film taken the approach of its stars, positioning itself as a good story containing a lot of nonsense, that would have been much more appealing. Instead, the expository tone and grave delivery of the actors robs us of any thrills and reduces the whole thing down to a drudging lecture.
 
This drudgery is reflected in the visuals. Salvatore Totino is a workable cinematographer: he worked with Howard on The Missing and Cinderella Man prior to this, as well as shooting Any Given Sunday with Oliver Stone. But whatever sharpness and brightness he brought to those productions has been replaced here with dimly light, poorly-composed scenes where the actors and camera barely move. It's no wonder that Mark Kermode's natural response was to scream "turn the light on!" when reviewing the film on BBC Radio 5Live.
 
The one genuinely enjoyable scene in the film comes when Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou drop by the house of a grail expert, played by Ian McKellen. This is the one part of the film where Howard allows his actors to unspool freely and relax into the sillier aspects of the plot. While the arguments being put before us are still complete hokum, it's watchable hokum and it actually feels like the plot is going somewhere. But once that scene is over, it's back to the pompous and ill-informed conspiracies for what feels like another seven years.
 
The performances in The Da Vinci Code are bafflingly below-par. Even if Hanks' terrible haircut can be tolerated, he still spends most of the film stumbling from scene to scene totally confused, like it was his very first film. Tautou has none of the grace or joie de vivre that she showed in Amelie, coming across as annoying and out of her depth. Paul Bettany is wasted in a role that becomes meaningless when played dead straight, and Alfred Molina is largely phoning it in. Only Ian McKellen gets the room he needs to express himself, and we miss him whenever he's not on screen.
 
The Da Vinci Code is a dismal and disappointing thriller that is more insulting for its poor scripting than its theological pretentions. Howard's direction is utterly lacklustre, most of the cast seem puzzled as to why they are there, the script has very little nuance and the whole thing is far too grim and serious. If you want a serious examination of Christian theology, this is definitely not the place to come. The only thing this film can produce is boredom or unintentional hilarity.

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NEXT REVIEW: Step Up 3 (2010)

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