Mad monk v predictable professor

May 26, 2006

THE DA VINCI CODE

In cinemas nationwide

No doubt readers of Dan Brown's bestseller will queue expectantly to see this much-heralded adaptation. But few of those enthralled by the book's breathless narrative will recognise that quality in this ponderous juggernaut of a film. The story lumbers from one set-piece confrontation to the next via several "pay-attention-this-is-important" mini-lectures on pseudo-history. It even manages to make its car chases look pedestrian before finally collapsing under the weight of its own portentousness.

Stylish in the manner of a tourist guidebook, it lingers over the rich textures of stone and stained glass in locations from Saint Sulpice and the Louvre to Rosslyn Chapel and the Temple church in London.

Meanwhile, our hero, Robert Langdon, Harvard professor of "religious symbology" (Tom Hanks), and his enigmatic companion, Sophie Neuveu (Audrey Tautou), race around Europe finding clues to "the greatest cover-up in human history", all the time pursued by killer clergy and hapless gendarmes.

As no doubt everyone interested in the film already knows, Langdon's search for "the truth" and the whereabouts of the Holy Grail leads him finally back to where he started and what has been under his nose all along (she's not called "Sophie" for nothing, profI), and faith, of a kind, prevails over the evidence after all.

Understandably, given the furore surrounding its portrayal of the Catholic Church, and Opus Dei in particular, it is easy to forget that the principal victims of misrepresentation in the film are actually academics. Hollywood, of course, has always had a fraught relationship with scholars. It loves the cachet to be had from associating itself with Ivy League and Oxbridge mystique, but has never been happy with the largely unphotogenic stuff that scholars actually do. So it remakes them in its own image. Archaeologists become Indiana Jones, leaping and swinging around the world in search of mythical treasures (come to think of it, didn't he find the Grail, and the Ark of the Covenant for that matter, during the Second World War? Why did no one tell Tom?). Historians, like Nicolas Cage's character in National Treasure , or Langdon here, become globe-trotting detectives, searching hidden "records" for clues to age-old mysteries that turn out to be the basis of contemporary conspiracies, racing against time to save the world from malign forces invisible to the naked eye.

While claiming to be based on "real" historical research (though not, obviously, in a plagiaristic wayI) The Da Vinci Code does little to repay the debt. It offers us scholarly research as treasure hunt; not so much blue skies as dark crypt, where the role models are either a crusty aristocratic zealot (Sir Ian McKellen), seemingly obsessed with the correct etiquette for drinking tea, or Hanks's wooden symbologist, with a photographic memory and a phobia for confined spaces, who nonetheless turns out to be able to take a punch to the head from a psychotic monk with the best of them.

OK, it is probably asking too much for a film to portray scholarly life realistically. But who could take seriously an academic world dominated by age-old feuds, where masochistic fanatics blindly carry out the dictates of an ancient cadre of conservative despots, where freethinking women are persecuted, and every sacred text is pored over to reveal conspiratorial secrets... at least not now that the research assessment exercise is going?

Greg Walker is professor of early modern literature and culture at Leicester University.

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