Ron Howard's adaptation of "The Da Vinci Code" is not nearly the disaster or deserving of the critical drubbing it received at this year's Cannes Film Festival. It is a better than average popcorn film that runs a bit long. Clocking in at two and a half hours, the film is overly faithful to the book. It loses the suspense that builds with the frenetic pace of the novel. Corners could have been cut to tighten up the pacing, but it's obvious the filmmakers did not want to offend the legions of rabid book fans. The film's strength is it's superb, and quite inventive, production design. An array of visual effects is skillfully used to recreate the historical events referred to in the plot. It fills in the void caused by the surprising lack of chemistry between the lead actors.
Tom Hanks stars as Robert Langdon, a renowned Harvard symbologist on a book tour in Paris. The French police summons him to the Louvre when the museum's curator is found dead; his body self-mutilated and surrounded by bizarre riddles. Langdon is joined at the museum by cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tatou), the estranged granddaughter of the curator. She warns him that he is the prime suspect of the French police. They escape the museum after discovering tantalizing clues to one of the greatest mysteries in Christianity, the quest for the Holy Grail. They embark on an odyssey to discover the mythical 'Cup of Christ', but soon realize a dangerous threat is pursuing them at every step. A devout sect of Catholics bent on destroying the grail has sent a murderous monk (Paul Bettany) to intercept them. Langdon seeks the guidance of wealthy Englishman and grail expert, Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellan), to hide them and assist in resolving the enigmatic Da Vinci code.
Tom Hanks is miscast as Robert Langdon. He seems out of place and oddly wooden in his characterizations. We are supposed to believe they're in imminent danger, but he seems remarkably nonplussed by the situation. There is no attraction or romantic tension with Audrey Tatou. It's almost as if she's on the run with her father or older brother. The book did not spell out a specific romance, but there was sexual chemistry between Langdon and Neveu. Luckily, Ian McKellan rescues the acting with his devious and overstated interpretation of Teabing. He is also responsible for revealing significant plot details in several long monologues. A lesser actor would have looked ridiculous with such rote lines, but McKellan adds vibrancy and pulls it off.
Director Ron Howard is truly the star of this film. The novel has a quick pace, but is filled with historical references that are not easily adapted to the screen. Howard gets around this with clever special effects and editing. He uses flashbacks and green screen technology to bring the ancient world in line with the modern one. As Langdon explains the meaning of a clue, the scenery around him adapts to show the audience the actual event. We see the crusades. We see the noble actions of the Knights Templar and their secret society, The Priory of Scion. It's a brilliant use of visual effects that instead of overpowering and taking the audience out of the story, fits perfectly in with the tone of the film.
"The Da Vinci Code" succeeds as a popcorn film. It can't be taken too seriously or over-analyzed, because it can be picked apart under scrutiny. Expectations were high because of the novel's success. It's almost always impossible to deliver under such pretense. I give Ron Howard credit for making an entertaining film. It's not a masterpiece, but it isn't terrible either. I was really disappointed by how sharp the early reviews were after actually seeing the movie. It wasn't given a chance and that's unfair. Audiences will be much more receptive and make a blockbuster out of "The Da Vinci Code".