269 – The Da Vinci Code

Unless you’re the kind of person whose faith is so unsteady that a mere Hollywood movie can shake it, you’ll probably find much to enjoy in The Da Vinci code. It has a bona fide leading man in Tom Hanks, a cute French femme fatale, a centuries-old mystery, and Gandalf/Magneto/Ian McKellen. It’s longish, and perhaps a little overplotted (though not for the millions who’ve read the book on which it’s based), but when it was over I felt satisfied that director Ron Howard had gotten it right. As usual.

The curator of the Louvre is found murdered, but before finally expiring he leaves a cryptic message in his own blood that induces Chief Inspector Fache (Jean Reno) to contact a visiting Harvard scholar, Robert Langdon (Hanks). Fache thinks the message indicates Langdon’s guilt regarding the murder, but another officer, Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) feels otherwise. What was the curator trying to say?

The chase – and effort to prove Langdon innocent – leads the duo around Europe, immersing them deep in the legends of Jesus Christ, the Holy Grail, the Knights Templar, Opus Dei, and Mary Magdelene. It’s important to remember, though, that the book on which this movie is based is a work of fiction. For the learning impaired, that means the author makes no claims of authenticity – the storyline has been concocted for the purposes of entertainment.

Along the way, Robert and Sophie meet up with Sir Leigh Teabing (McKellen), a Grail scholar/devotee/nutcase. McKellen spins a yarn about what everyone’s really after, managing to deal a couple of serious blows to the basic tenets of Christianty as we know it in the process. And no, of course I’m not going to note what those surprises might entail, although by now most people have an inkling or two.

While Robert and Sophie struggle to find clues regarding the curator’s murder – and clues pertaining to the Grail itself – other, more sinister forces are afoot. An albino monk (Paul Bettany) has the mission of finding the location of the Holy Grail – and then preventing at all costs anyone from ever finding out. Then there’s a semicorrupt bishop and the Pope, but they both just have cameos. Not the real bishop and Pope, though; that would be quite the casting coup.

Hanks is well cast. If we’re to believe the rumors, Bill Paxton was Howard’s first choice. If you’re Tom Hanks, how do you deal with your favorite director wanting Bill Paxton over you? It’s gotta hurt at least a teeny bit. On the other hand, Tautou was chosen instead of some pretty strong competition, like Sophie Marceau and Julie Delpy, and she has excellent chemistry with Hanks. They’re not supposed to be lovers, just two semirandom people thrust into increasingly odd situations. Both roles are well written, and the actors are well up to the task.

As good as Hanks and Tautou are, though, McKellen is extraordinary, owning every one of his scenes. Sir Ian has given plenty of commanding performances in recent years, and although this one may someday be dwarfed in retrospect by the roles of Gandalf and Magneto, it’s no less compelling.

The Da Vinci code is perhaps even better than the book, because the book wasn’t terribly good. A riveting, well-paced religious-mystery/thriller is supplemented nicely by a fine cast.

The Da Vinci Code: ***

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