Cod squad

Film - On screen, Brown's religious thriller is still an unholy mess

<strong>The Da Vinci Code

Forget being a member of Opus Dei: you would need to be an anchorite not to have been exposed to The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown's ludicrous ecclesiastical thriller, a blockbuster that has generated a PR-friendly furore of lawsuits, religious outrage, television documentaries and, now, Ron Howard's excitably publicised film adaptation. In keeping with its theological theorising, however, it is far from divine. In fact, if Howard's direction was any more workmanlike, it would down tools and have a cup of tea after an hour of hammering away at the plot.

As anyone who has read the novel will know, Brown is no prose stylist - descriptions of churches and dark city streets lumber past lumberingly, as he might say - but it didn't matter so much when his modern Grail quest hit upon one hell of a plot (quite literally, if you believe the little old nuns praying for his soul). For those who haven't read the book, or who are pretending that they haven't in order to cause a stir at dinner parties, The Da Vinci Code follows the "Harvard Professor of Religious Symbology", Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), and a renegade Parisian policewoman, Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), as they attempt to solve the murder of her grandfather, a curator at the Louvre charged with keeping a terrible secret. While decoding clues left by the victim in his own blood, Robert and Sophie must swerve the evil machinations of a murderous albino monk called Silas, as well as the Catholic organisation Opus Dei and the French police inspector Bezu Fache (Jean Reno). Along the way, they discover a conspiracy involving Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper, the Knights Templar, a secret group called the Priory of Sion and a woman-hating Church cover-up concerning Christ's divinity, the role of Mary Magdalene and the bloodline of Jesus himself. Bits of it might as well be in Aramaic, but The Passion of the Christ it is not.

For that, at least, we should be thankful. With religious fundamentalism of every stripe resurgent, the popularity of The Da Vinci Code is a refreshing reminder that most people will need a lot more convincing before they start denying evolution and insist that female reproductive organs are public property. So it's a shame that, for all the progressive subtext, Howard's film captures more of Brown's thudding prose and less of the rip-roaring plot.

The novel wasn't exactly subtle, but on the big screen even the twists are signposted like the M1, more Highway Code than da Vinci. For all the big-budget glitz, certain scenes still look as if they have been put together on the cheap: the important parchment inside the cryptex resembles a cracker motto and the European locations have that glossy insubstantiality you associate with red-bus-heavy Rank films.

True to the spirit of Brown's prose, the script is equally lumpen. When Robert tells Sophie it's "a half-hour to Chelsea Library", the temperature in the cinema rockets as hundreds of people blush simultaneously. The idea of Tom Hanks as a professor of religious symbology is not helped by the scenes where Robert and Sophie work out the codes left by the murdered curator. Sophie seems inordinately impressed by his ability to decipher anagrams - "Can you solve it?" she asks breathlessly, as if he's cracking the Rosetta Stone with nothing but a ballpoint pen from the betting shop and the back of a cab receipt. People who finish the cryptic crossword on the train home from work every night might be forgiven for thinking that they, too, could quit the rat race for a career in religious symbology.

Amazingly, for such a high-profile film, Hanks and Tautou make an uninspiring double act. Considering that the novel makes a noble attempt to right centuries of Church-driven misogyny, it's a shame that the female lead is as weak as water. Tautou, the only surviving descendant of the royal blood- line of Bambi, does little other than look gamine and vaguely brainy, her accent more challenging than any medieval code. Hanks, meanwhile, conveys fiendish intelligence by squinting a lot.

Luckily, the smaller roles have more character. If Ian McKellen's turn as the English Grail historian Sir Leigh Teabing was any hammier, he'd be on the menu at an organic gastro-pub, but his Gloucester Old Spot stylings are entertaining and, gratifyingly, get the film's only laughs. Paul Bettany, playing Silas, the mad monk, need do nothing but look palely psychotic, and he manages it masterfully. You can't help thinking, though, that the shots of naked self-flagellation and of the flesh-chastising cilice buckled around his milky white thigh are just a little too loving. Still, a blockbuster like this needs something for everyone.

And that, perhaps, is its main failing. By the end, the film degenerates into wishy-washy relativism of the school that says "the only thing that matters is what you believe", a real cop-out after the hectic Grail quest preceding it. Not so much the Greatest Story Ever Told as the Greatest Hype Ever Generated, it puts an entirely different spin on the "con of man".

This article first appeared in the 29 May 2006 issue of the New Statesman, They can play, but they can never win