Anagrams, puzzles and numerical sequences. Opus Dei, Priory of Sion and the Council of Shadows. Leonardo Da Vinci, Isaac Newton and Alexander Pope... Say what you like about Dan Brown’s international bestseller, you certainly know more at the end than you do at the start. Whether you take his highly readable hodgepodge of fact and fiction as gospel truth or divine comedy is your concern. What can’t be debated is Brown has managed to capture the imagination of millions of readers with a prose style that would shame a telephone directory.
Whether those readers will be as captivated by Ron Howard’s film version remains to be seen, though one suspects the book’s canny use of Catholic-baiting controversy might shift the odd ticket. It’s fair to say, though, the Apollo 13 director has made exceptionally heavy going of material that, given its labyrinthine structure and exposition-filled script, could definitely have used a lightness of touch. Beginning with the unsettling discovery of a mutilated corpse pegged out on the floor of the Louvre – nasty enough for one to question the 12A certificate – Howard unfolds a lurid saga of sinister sects, double-crosses and self-flagellating zealots, set in a murky world that is always one part nightmare. Even the odd burst of action – notably a Smart Car chase through Paris that invites comparisons with The Bourne Identity – can’t dispel the sombre mood.
Throw in a pallid Tom Hanks, out-acted by his mullet in an egghead role almost entirely devoid of personality, and Audrey Tautou, whose tenuous grasp of English makes one hanker for subtitles, and what should’ve been a fast-paced scavenger hunt in the tradition of Raiders becomes positively funereal. Thank goodness, then, for Ian McKellen, whose arrival one hour in as eccentric Grail expert Sir Leigh Teabing gives the piece a vital shot in the arm just when it needs it most. Kudos too to Paul Bettany, whose scary turn as psycho albino Silas brings a tension and danger that’s so lacking elsewhere.
Da Vinci has other things to recommend it: bold, swooping camerawork, striking use of some eye-catching locations and ambitious, if incongruous flashbacks to the Crusades, Ancient Rome and the Middle Ages. Where it blunders, though, is in treating Brown’s trashy time-waster as sacred text, a decision that swells the running time to an energy-sapping two-and-a-half hours. Fans of the original will be thrilled by such fidelity to what remains, when all is said and done, a cracking yarn. But if you’re coming to it cold, don’t be surprised if you exit wondering exactly what all the fuss is about.