When I first heard that Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code was being made into a film, my first reaction was: ``Who on earth can play a psycho killer albino monk who whips himself?" I should have known it would be Paul Bettany.
But he is just one of the extraordinary elements in this movie. In spite of a general panning from critics, I have watched it many times and found that it gets better with subsequent viewings.
Basically, DVC the movie succeeds where the book fails. Dan Brown has no visual power in his prose. It reads as dry as a text book, and the characters never seem fully fleshed. But under Ron Howard's well honed direction, DVC comes to life, like a black and white drawing washed with intense color.
I agreed at first that Tom Hanks wasn't the ideal choice for Robert Langdon. I would have preferred Russell Crowe. Hanks is a fine actor but he never comes across as an academic. Nevertheless, he grows on you - he is a master at finding the simple humanity in every character, even dry as dust scholars afraid of confined spaces.
The rest of the cast is brilliant. Bettany's mad monk Silas makes Rasputin look like an amateur, yet no matter how repellent the character, Bettany lets us see the damaged human beneath. Alfred Molina, as Silas' mentor and tormentor, Bishop Aringarosa, creates a character far more evil in its subtlety.
Ian McKellen never disappoints, whether he is the wisest old wizard in literary history, or here, an academic with a passion for the Holy Grail that has warped his soul as surely as the desire to destroy it warped Aringarosa.
Then there is Jean Reno as Fache, a Paris cop on the trail of Langdon and his companion Sophie, whom he believes are on a killing spree. It's a finely judged performance, showing the flaws and strengths of a man with his own agenda in this exciting chase across Europe.
Audrey Tautou brings the crucial character of Sophie to life, giving her presence, passion and intelligence. This is no `girlfriend' role. While there is a hint of chemistry, it is never made clear if Langdon and Sophie share anything more than an immense liking for each other.
Add the absolutely marvelous actor Jurgen Prochnow into the mix, and you have a cast that is hand picked to take Brown's somewhat wooden characters and make them quirky and complex and flawed.
How is also far better than Brown at creating a sense of time and place and blending in the historical background to the quest. The glimpses into the distant past have the quality of old paintings, the virtue of not holding up the story, but moving it forward. He takes us from one fabulous location to another, letting the changing light and architecture tell its own story.
If only the book had been like that, I would read it again. Instead, I'll watch the movie again.
The book by Dan Brown:
The Da Vinci Code
The Da Vinci Code (Widescreen Two-Disc Special Edition)