Suspending Disbelief

The film of Dan Brown’s best-seller Angels and Demons is pure hokum

Film Literature The Catholic Church

Oh, the uses of high culture in a demotic age. Put an aria on a car commercial and suddenly you’re selling in a different league. Or, similarly, take some Latin texts, add a couple of gothic arches, throw in words like Bernini and Illuminati and bang, instant class! Pulp fiction can suddenly be wreathed in distinction for those for whom a little learning has yet to pose an actual danger, but remains a far-off aspiration. Try to imagine the menu at McDonald’s printed in elegant French and garnished with delicate rococo illustrations. Would it not turn even your head, just a little?

Perhaps we should draw an odd comfort from this. Maybe it is proof that despite the onslaught of relativism and so-called anti-elitism, the high arts retain the ability to impress and bestow authority. The author Dan Brown is surely banking on it. His novels The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons — conspiracy thrillers set amid the silk and baroque-drenched traditions of the Catholic Church — have been translated into more than 40 languages and made him trillions of dollars, with the film version of the former making $750 million worldwide. The galleries of the Louvre looked sumptuous on the big screen — painting and sculpture for some reason take very well to celluloid — and managed, for hordes of the credulous, to divert attention from the fact that the story, and the theory, was the biggest load of rubbish from start to finish.

That film left us with a conspiratorial view that had already been doing the rounds before the ex-singer/songwriter Brown got hold of it: that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had married and had a daughter, and that the bloodline had continued to this day. This inconvenient turn of events was covered up by the Church until Brown’s hero, an American symbols expert called Robert Langdon (played by Tom Hanks), was let loose on the case, wrapping it up in the space of 24 hours and with no costume changes.

You would think that such a discovery would have had serious worldwide repercussions. But in Angels & Demons, which like the first film is directed by the dependably banal Ron Howard, it is alluded to as simply a spot of recent unpleasantness. It seems to be business as usual at the Vatican, which, in the middle of the election of a new Pope, once again summons Langdon to help unravel a fresh conspiracy with similarly ancient roots — an odd choice you would have thought, like putting Dracula in charge of a blood bank. But there you go. His mission is to uncover the resurgent brotherhood of the Illuminati, which has kidnapped four cardinals and is threatening to kill them one by one, by way of a build-up to a spectacular pièce de résistance: a time-bomb, secreted near St Peter’s, which will blow the Vatican to smithereens. But this is no ordinary bomb. It is formed of what is called anti-matter, the effect of which is apparently nuclear. 

I’d never heard of anti-matter before seeing this film (it exists apparently), but it didn’t really make any difference. So many allusions, so many colourful explanations for this and that, so many little bits of knowledge are introduced, that the effect is like watching a bunch of characters on acid telling each other all about their weirdest dreams. Hanks and his sidekick, a gorgeous pouting Italian scientist (the Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer), have less than 24 hours to scour Rome in search of clues. So random and amateurish are their methods that they look more like a couple of over-enthusiastic participants in one of those weekend mystery tours. They rush from Sistine Chapel to Pantheon to Castel Sant’Angelo, filling in the blanks, making wild assumptions and at one point relying on the knowledge of a lowly tour guide to point them in the right direction (a moment which got a good round of laughter at our press screening). There is a twist of course, but for the even slightly awake it is easy to discern. Just keep an eye on the characters who seem to have no use to the plot from the outset. 

As a cross between Bond and Miss Marple, Hanks is an odd choice. He is an actor who majors in sentimentality and light comedy and has not a scintilla of credibility as a world-class academic. As the young Cardinal Camerlengo (the acting head of state of the Vatican during the election of a new Pope), Ewan McGregor glides through the film on a big fat pay cheque. But performances are not what films like this are about. Like airport novels, they are meant to provide rattling good yarns, of the kind in which the characters occasionally explain the plot to each other, just so that everybody can keep up.

Angels & Demons does have a couple of moments of suspense, which alone makes it a 100 per cent improvement on The Da Vinci Code. It also makes a half-hearted attempt at being more even-handed about the Church, by way of a brief, implausible speech by McGregor in which he suggests science and religion should be able to live in peace together. But this still leaves the question of quite how much damage Brown’s oeuvre has done to Catholicism. I’m sure Catholicism is old enough and strong enough to take care of itself. But if I were a member of that Church, I think I would be furious at the way in which one cheapjack author of potboilers has managed to make a fortune by appealing to those who are equally ready to believe that the moon-landing was filmed in a Hollywood studio or that the late Queen Mother was in fact a giant lizard. Beware — such people walk among us.