A well-crafted thriller
By Lady Liberty
The Da Vinci Code
*** out of ****
Most wildly successful books end up being made into movies. Given the stellar performance of Dan Brown's book, then, it can't possibly come as a surprise to anyone that it was one of those optioned by filmmakers. And given the fuss made about the novel at the time, it didn't take psychic powers to know that the movie would come under the same kinds of criticism from those who consider the story itself to be blasphemy. The fact that I really kind of enjoy a good controversy was alone enough to make me buy a ticket to see The Da Vinci Code this weekend. That I'd enjoyed the novel immensely was almost secondary.
In The Da Vinci Code, Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) works at Harvard as a professor specializing in symbols. His particular area of expertise involves religious symbology in an historical context. He happens to be giving a lecture in Paris on the very evening the curator of the Louvre is murdered by a mysterious Opus Dei monk named Silas (Paul Bettany).
Because the body is surrounded by symbols, Police Captain Fache (Jean Reno) seeks Langdon out for help. The curator's granddaughter, Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tatou) specializes in code breaking for the police, so it's no surprise that Fache and Langdon find her on the scene at the Louvre as well. But what Langdon doesn't understand is that he is himself the prime suspect in the murder.
While the professor innocently helps the police with the meaning behind some of the symbols he's permitted to see at the murder scene, Sophie works along a parallel course. She's just as anxious to solve the murder as is Captain Fache, but she also knows that Langdon is not only not guilty but that he could be of crucial assistance in finding the responsible party. Interpreting the messages left for them by a dead man, the two soon find themselves on a trail followed by thousands from time immemorial: a search for the Holy Grail itself.
Though of mythical proportions, there are experts who believe the Holy Grail is real and that it might actually be found. One of them is Sir Leigh Teabing, an Englishman retired to the French countryside. Fortunately, Teabing is known to Langdon, and he and Neveu contact him to learn what they can. The police, of course, are wasting no time and they're not on the trail of the two fugitives. Unknown to those on either side is the fact that representatives of Opus Dei are determined to get there first to ensure that some secrets are never told.
Tom Hanks, who has won Oscars for some of his past performances, is perfectly fine here (though the critics do have a point concerning his hairstyle — ugh). Playing a relatively staid (and frankly bookish) professor doesn't allow him a lot of room, though, to really show what he can do dramatically. Audrey Tatou is very pretty and also perfectly fine, but again, much of her role doesn't offer the opportunity to do more than go with the flow. Paul Bettany, who often plays the quiet, studious type, is positively menacing here, and good for him! But the standout performance comes from Ian McKellen who steals virtually every moment of every scene he's in, and does so handily.
Special effects that involve illustrating historical events while the professor narrates are beautifully rendered (pay particular attention to the way an explanation of Sir Isaac Newton's funeral is handled). The sets are just wonderful (scenes in the Louvre, of course, were actually filmed in the Louvre, and some very old English churches were also employed, all of which lend a great deal to the ambiance); the editing was nicely done, too, especially given the fact that a great deal of information had to be distilled into a two and a half hour movie. And that brings me to commenting on the script.
Writer Akiva Goldman has something of an uneven résumé. It seems he's either stellar or considerably less so (previous efforts include the scripts for Cinderella Man and A Beautiful Mind as well as the lamentably bad Lost in Space and the short-of-expectations I, Robot). He had a tough assignment adapting The Da Vinci Code for the screen given the incredible amount of detail — some of it quite esoteric — that Brown included in his novel. Although the screenplay isn't unflawed, I also would agree that he did just about the best job possible with the material he had to use.
Those who suggest that The Da Vinci Code is difficult to follow without having read the book are, I think, giving audiences far less credit than they're due. Much of the book was distilled into combined incidents, and other matters were left out for brevity's sake; none of it harmed the plot which, while remaining somewhat complex, is certainly not hard to follow for anyone who pays attention. And those critics who apparently found the film so lacking when they were given a preview of the finished product at the Cannes Film Festival last week apparently don't represent regular audiences at all: The audience I saw the movie with actually applauded at the end, something I very rarely see any more.
I liked The Da Vinci Code on a variety of levels, not least of which was because it was sufficiently well crafted that it swept me into the suspense of the search despite the fact I knew all too well the major plot twists to come. The production values and the caliber of acting were merely additions to an already captivating story and a script that did it credit. But the best recommendation for seeing The Da Vinci Code may not come from me, but rather a young man seated behind me with his girlfriend. As the closing credits ran, I heard him say, "Wow. I didn't think I was going to like it. But it was good!" It is.
POLITICAL NOTES: If you haven't been living in a cave, you've doubtless heard more than you care to about The Da Vinci Code from those who'd like to see the story silenced. Boycotts have been demanded around the world. In some places, the premiere has been delayed; in others, there's even been talk of special edits. This, my friends, is censorship as clearly as can be, and that something of that nature is even approached in the United States is appalling.
There are those fundamental Christian groups who consider the storyline blasphemous, and don't want anybody to see what they consider offensive. (I later learned that many of those pro-boycott people were afraid their followers were too ignorant of their own religion to tell the difference between fact and fiction in the movie.) Opus Dei — which happens to be a real Catholic organization — is less than pleased about its depiction in the book and film (though it's made clear that those more extreme characters shown in the story are a very small minority).
If people want to use the story as a springboard for discussion, good for them. If religious groups would like to use the story to educate their followers, good for them. But if those who don't like some aspect or another of the story intend to stop all of us from hearing or seeing it, well, that's bad for all of us.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: The Da Vinci Code is rated PG-13 for "disturbing images, violence, some nudity, thematic material, brief drug references, and sexual content." Neither the nudity nor the sexual content is, in my opinion, remotely an issue here; the drug references are subtle enough that I don't even remember them. The thematic material is, however, much too complex for younger children to understand or to appreciate. Additionally, some scenes of mortification are far beyond what youngsters ought to see. I'd say that The Da Vinci Code is best suited for those movie-goers of about age 15 or so and up who are able to appreciate the intricacies and import of a well told story.
Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at firstname.lastname@example.org.