A pulpy page-turner in its original incarnation as a huge international bestseller has become a stodgy, grim thing in the exceedingly literal-minded film version of “The Da Vinci Code.” Tackling head-on novelist Dan Brown’s controversy-stirring thriller hinging on a subversively revisionist view of Jesus Christ’s life, director Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman have conspired to drain any sense of fun out of the melodrama, leaving expectant audiences with an oppressively talky film that isn’t exactly dull, but comes as close to it as one could imagine with such provocative material; result is perhaps the best thing the project’s critics could have hoped for. Enormous public anticipation worldwide will result in explosive B.O. at the start in near-simultaneous release in most international territories, beginning May 17 in some countries — day-and-date with the official Cannes opening-night preem — and May 19 in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Sitting through all the verbose explanations and speculations about symbols, codes, secret cults, religious history and covert messages in art, it is impossible to believe that, had the novel never existed, such a script would ever have been considered by a Hollywood studio. It’s esoteric, heady stuff, made compelling only by the fact that what it’s proposing undermines the fundamental tenets of Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism, and, by extension, Western Civilization for the past 2,000 years.
The irony in the film’s inadequacy is that the novel was widely found to be so cinematic. Although pretty dismal as prose, the tome fairly rips along, courtesy of a strong story hook, very short chapters that seem like movie scenes, constant movement by the principal characters in a series of conveyances, periodic eruptions of violent action and a compressed 24-hour time frame.
The appearance of its easy adaptability may have been deceptive, however, as what went down easily on the page becomes laborious onscreen, even with the huge visual plus of fabulous French and English locations, fine actors and the ability to scrutinize works of Da Vinci in detail.
What one is left with is high-minded lurid material sucked dry by a desperately solemn approach. Some nifty scene-setting, with strong images amplifying a Paris lecture delivered by Harvard symbology professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) intercut with the Louvre murder of curator Sauniere by albino monk Silas (Paul Bettany), spurs hope that Howard might be on track to find a visual way to communicate the book’s content.
But from the first one-on-one scene between Robert and French police cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou, occasionally hard to understand), in which she convinces him that cop Bezu Fache (Jean Reno) intends to hold him for the murder, the temperature level drops, and continues to do so as the pair goes on the run to stay one step ahead of Fache while using their complementary specialties to decipher the meaning of the cryptic messages Sauniere scrawled on his body in his own blood before he died.
Part of the quick deflation is due to a palpable lack of chemistry between Hanks and Tautou, an odd thing in itself given their genial accessibility in many previous roles. Howard, normally a generous director of actors, makes them both look stiff, pasty and inexpressive in material that provides them little opportunity to express basic human nature; unlike in the book, they are never allowed to even suggest their fatigue after a full night and day of non-stop running, nor to say anything that doesn’t relate directly to narrative forward movement. It’s a film so overloaded with plot that there’s no room for anything else, from emotion to stylistic grace notes.
The pursuit of a man and a woman barely known to one another was a favorite premise of Alfred Hitchcock, and one need only think of the mileage the director got out of such a set-up in films from “The 39 Steps” to “North by Northwest” to realize some of the missed opportunities here.
Temporary relief comes, an hour in, with the arrival of Ian McKellen as Sir Leigh Teabing, an immensely wealthy Holy Grail fanatic to whom it falls to explain, in unavoidably fascinating monologues, the alternate history the story advances. It is Teabing’s thesis that the early Church, beginning with the Emperor Constantine, suppressed the feminine aspects of religion both stemming from pagan times as well as from the prominent role in spreading the faith he insists was played by Mary Magdalene, a role underlined by a close look at Da Vinci’s celebrated “The Last Supper.”
More than that, however, Teabing insists that Mary Magdalene, far from having been a prostitute, was actually Jesus’ wife and that they had a daughter whose bloodline has persisted. McKellen seems to relish every moment and line, which can scarcely be said of the other thesps.
Given the widespread readership the book has enjoyed and the howls of protest from Christian entities beginning with the Vatican, it is hardly spoiling things to point out that the baddies here are members of the strict Catholic sect Opus Dei, including Silas and Alfred Molina’s Bishop Aringarosa, defenders of doctrine determined to eliminate the threat to the established order posed by the so-called Priory of Sion, an organization secretly holding the “knowledge” that could cripple the church.
Even after the action moves from France to England, there’s still a long way to go, and the final dramatic revelations, however mind-boggling from a content p.o.v., come off as particularly flat.
The darkly burnished stylings cinematographer Salvatore Totino brought to Howard’s previous two films, “The Missing” and “Cinderella Man,” prove rather less seductive in the largely nocturnal realms of “The Da Vinci Code.” Hans Zimmer’s ever-present score is at times dramatic to the point of over-insistence.