This review comes to you a few days after the global release of The Da Vinci Code. That’s because the film’s producers refused to allow South African (and most other) film critics to view it before its launch. This is usually a significant omen; most often revealing the studio’s lack of confidence in an almost assured stinker of a film.
A rare, much-reported-on preview in Cannes last week saw critics chuckle at dramatic moments on screen and few had anything good to say about the Da Vinci Code after the screening. Subsequent reviews were almost all scathing. Indeed, the signs were not good for Ron Howard’s adaptation of the most popular book of the century.
Now with the film’s massive global box-office opening behind us, doubts about The Da Vinci Code’s resonance with the public have been swept away. So does this impressive success mean that the critics were wrong? Well, yes and no.
The film is, from the outset, disadvantaged by Dan Brown’s book. It is a gripping read, but it has many, many problems that are obscured by its cracking pace and intriguing (and belatedly eye-opening for some) subject matter. The dialogue is often awkward and characters are thinner than the paper the book is printed on.
Unfortunately, these flaws are magnified in the film adaptation. Dr Robert Langdon is one of the blandest and stiffest film heroes I’ve ever seen – and this is not helped by Tom Hanks’ by-the-numbers everyman persona. It has its charm at times, but here a stronger presence with more gravitas would have helped. He and frumpy doe-eyed co-star Audrey Tautou spend too much time alternating between looking puzzled, startled and concerned. The film is also hampered by the huge amount of exposition required to present its disputed historical and religious revelations.
Pages of historical facts are one thing, but long expository monologues on screen are not particularly filmic. Howard (A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13) softens the clumsiness of this structural challenge by offering flashbacks to many of the historical events that are referred to, but these scenes are still roadblocks in the film’s pacing.
The Da Vinci Code surprisingly remains a largely satisfying experience. There is no doubt that many of us are fascinated by the subject matter, which has connected with a global zeitgeist of religious cynicism and conspiracy paranoia. A film so full of pot-boiler material – secret societies, religious conspiracies, murderous monks, S&M and hidden treasures, just to name a few elements – cannot help but entertain.
Howard makes good use of cinematic devices to give the film visual sequences that are often beautiful. The ghostly ‘merging’ and ‘overlapping’ of present London with old London, for example, stand out. Some of the cast, specifically Ian McKellen who is able to rise above his character’s rich English eccentric stereotype, also make their mark. Look out for Paul Bettany’s intriguing turn as the albino Opus Dei assassin monk, who rather likes to stand about naked flagellating himself.
The Da Vinci Code is a successful adaptation of a flawed book; one that is still entertaining (if overlong) and at times gripping to watch. It is something of a lost opportunity however – perhaps out of fear of offending the book’s fans. If the filmmakers had had the courage to make more significant changes to the material The Da Vinci Code might have been a much more successful film in its own right. As it stands, it’s simply an enjoyable on-screen page turner with delusions of grandeur.