Tag: Murder mystery

The Name of the Rose (1986)

Sean Connery taps into his inner Sherlock Holmes in The Name of the Rose

Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud

Cast: Sean Connery (William of Baskerville), F. Murray Abraham (Bernardo Gui), Christian Slater (Adso of Melk), Michael Lonsdale (The Abbot), Helmut Qualtinger (Remigio de Varagine), Elya Baskin (Severinus), Volker Prechtel (Malachia), Feodor Chaliapin Jnr (Jorge), William Hickey (Ubertino de Casale), Michael Habeck (Berengar), Urs Althaus (Venantius), Valentina Vargas (The Girl), Ron Perlman (Salvatore)

Umberto Eco’s erudite medieval murder-mystery was about the wonderful power of books, as much as murder mayhem in a medieval abbey. A surprise bestseller, the story is a perfect mix of intellectual playfulness and Agatha Christie whodunit, with suspects left, right and centre and bodies piling up faster than you can count. Jean-Jacques Annaud fought for years to bring the book to the screen, and his vision of it might well sacrifice much of the depth of the original (it even cheekily refers to itself as a “palimpsest” of the original novel – something reused but still bearing traces of the original) but brings enough to the table to have its own life.

In 1327, monks and high churchmen assemble at a Benedictine abbey in Northern Italy, famed for its voluminous library. However, all is not well at the Abbey with one monk already dead in mysterious circumstances, and soon many others join him in death, each of the later victims with mysteriously blackened fingers and tongues. The Abbot (Michael Lonsdale) asks renowned Franciscan monk William of Baskerville (Sean Connery) to investigate – and his efforts will reveal the dark truths at the heart of the abbey and place him and his novice Adso (Christian Slater) on a collision course with Inquisitor Bernardo Gui (F. Murray Abraham) who sees not a human hand, but the hand of Satan, in the murders.

Annaud’s film perfectly captures the mud and grime of the medieval world, with its murky visuals of the cold and damp in a building like this in winter. To be fair, the film is helped in its sense of oppressive medievalism by its frequently choppy editing and less-than-obvious camera angles (at times making it hard to tell what is happening), while James Horner’s score may hit its notes hard at points, but does sound like a successful pastiche of choral music of the time and creates an ominous air.

Annaud searched far-and-wide for his ideal cast to populate the monastery – and he seems to have assembled actors based on the closeness of their resemblance to Holbein, Bosch and Brugel grotesques. The monks are a distinctive set of oddball weirdos, often pale of face (non-more so than obese albino Beringar, whose effete campness tips a little uncomfortably into homophobia today), with oddly tonsued facial hair, and prominent facial features. To be honest it makes the movie-stardom of Connery (and Slater) stand out even more, as practically the only members of the cast who don’t look like they could audition for the Addams family. Ron Perlman in particular labours under such carefully applied make-up, matched with a faultlessly committed performance of physical and verbal childishness mixed with animal instinct, it was a shock to find out from other films that he was not hideously deformed!

William of Baskerville, as imagined by Eco, was a mix of William of Occam (him of Occam’s razor) and Sherlock Holmes (hence the Baskerville) – the book even matched almost word for word, Watson’s first description of Holmes from A Study with Scarlet with Adso’s first description of William. (Adso himself is also basically W-atso-n). The film is at its strongest when focused in William’s deductions, his lightening intellectualism and his ability to bring even the smallest fact or note to bear in order to shape a conclusion. The film front-and-centres William’s investigation over and above the other themes of the book (around faith, books and intellectual freedom), but this works for the requirements of a film’s narrative.

t also helps that William is played by Sean Connery in one of his finest performances. Heading into the film, Connery’s career was in a seemingly terminal decline (indeed the Great Scotsman was seen as such box-office poison, a Hollywood Studio pulled their funding after he was cast). Connery had to work hard to persuade Annaud – but thank god he did, as he plays on his fatherly and intellectual strengths here. In real life a committed autodidact, Connery perfectly captures the curiosity and love-of-learning of William, and also invests him with a profound moral sense, shaded by his guilt at past failings and playful understanding of how the moments when we fail to live up to expectations do not mean we are damned. It’s one of Connery’s finest performance – and unarguably changed his career, as he headed into a five year purple patch of increasingly impressive performances. 

Connery’s compelling performance is the real meat of the film, and he creates a character who feels warm, rounded and a perfect mix of contemporary and of-the-period. He’s also well supported by a young Christian Slater as his sidekick novice, who also gets a surprisingly raunchy sex scene. It’s unfortunate the rest of the cast don’t get as much to play with. The rest of the monks are oddballs, or drift out of the film as the plot requires (Michael Lonsdale’s abbot simply disappears, despite hints of a darker role in the plot early in the film).

In particular F Murray Abraham devours most of the impressive set as a lip-smackingly cruel inquisitor who delights in handing out the judgement of God. The film repositions him as a hissable villain, and reduces his impact accordingly, including placing him in an “you’re off the case William!” role. The final, murkily done sequence (featuring fires, heretics punished and a couple of nasty accidents) does tip into the sort of Grand Guignol gothicness that the book itself more or less avoids. But then it’s part of the general boiling down of the novel – making it that palimpsest – and also part of Annaud’s Euro-epic style, with its melting pot of accents and touches of clumsy editing and filming.

The balance of the original novel between ideas and sensation gets more or lost in sensation here – indeed the book that all this murderous behaviour is all about gets rushed over and its impact poorly explained, as are the motives of the eventual killer – but it all still kind of works because it looks more or less perfect and because of that Connery performance. Annaud was probably not quite the director to successfully marry the two parts of the book – and his direction is adequate in many places rather than inspired, with too many awkward handbrake turns – but this is still a film I have enjoyed many times over and will do so again.

Knives Out (2019)

Daniel Craig investigates in Rian Johnson’s amusing Christie-pastiche Knives Out

Director: Rian Johnson

Cast: Daniel Craig (Benoit Blanc), Chris Evans (Random Drysdale), Ana de Armas (Marta Cabrera), Jamie Lee Curtis (Linda Drysdale), Michael Shannon (Walt Thrombey), Don Johnson (Richard Drysdale), Toni Collette (Joni Thrombrey), Lakeith Stanfield (Lt. Elliot), Katherine Langford (Meg Thrombey), Jaeden Martell (Jacob Thrombey), Christopher Plummer (Harlan Thrombey), Noah Segan (Trooper Wagner), Frank Oz (Alan Stevens)

Rian Johnson’s film CV is full of interesting (and affectionate) twists on assorted genre films. While many will be most familiar with his controversial and iconoclastic Star Wars film The Last Jedi, Knives Outfits more neatly in with his imaginative twist on time-travel Looper and, most tellingly, his film-noir high-school thriller Brick. Knives Out plays into Johnson’s love of old-school, all-star, Agatha Christie style murder-mysteries. Johnson even pops up before screenings of the film to beg viewers – like Alfred Hitchcock in his prime – to not give away the twist endings. So I won’t do it here. Rian Johnson’s way too sweet to disappoint.

The murder that leads to the mystery is Harlan Thrombey’s (Christopher Plummer), the film opening a week after his apparent suicide (or was it!?). If everything is so straight forward, then who has anonymously hired “last of the gentlemen sleuths” Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) to investigate the death? There seems to be no shortage of motives either: in his last day, Thrombey threatened to expose his son-in-law Richard’s (Don Johnson) affair, cut-off his daughter-in-law Joni’s (Ton Collette) allowance due to theft, fired his youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon) as head of his publishing company and cut Richard and his daughter Linda’s (Jamie Lee Curtis) playboy son Random (Chris Evans) out of his will. On top of that, his live-in-nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) may have secrets of her own. Will Blanc be able to unpick this web?

Going too far into detail around Knives Out would be to spoil the general sense of fun that Johnson’s film manages to create. The film is not a spoof or parody in any way, but a very intelligent reworking of genre tropes and Agatha Christie style plot twists (a distant house, a mysterious killing, a host of suspects, a barrage of motivations, a house crammed with bolt holes, blackmail, muddy footprints, medicine and acting all get a look in), all governed by an eccentric detective bubbling with his own unique methods for solving a case. It’s all told with a brilliant affection, a wonderful twinkle and a great deal of invention and intelligence from Johnson. 

It’s also a film with a brilliantly assembled plot – and a neat reminder of what a strong writer Johnson is, as well as an inspired stylist. The film creates a host of superb characters for the audience to enjoy and puzzle over – each of them of course attracting a wonderful company of actors, a perfect mix of the skilled and wildcard choices, all of whom pay off. It’s also a structurally daring film: it reveals what it leads many to think is its full hand very early in the film, before subtly revealing that there are multiple mysteries wrapped up within the main mystery (“a doughnut within a doughnut” as Blanc puts it in his own unique way).

And interestingly the film more and more revolves around Marta, its seeming Captain Hastings-figure (or Watson as the film prefers to quote). Played with a charming guilelessness and honesty by Ana de Armas (in more ways than one, since all lies cause Marta to vomit, a joke that sounds crass but is executed perfectly throughout), Marta is the eyes we follow the film’s plot through, meaning we discover events as she does. Marta’s decency and honesty also work as a wonderful device to flag up the increasing hypocrisy and mean-spiritedness of Thrombey’s family. 

The Thrombey clan are an extraordinary group of self-obsessed, greedy and selfishly entitled so-and-sos, who seem to be lacking all expected principles. From Jamie Lee Curtis’ domineering elder daughter, who believes she is a self-made-woman but quickly resorts to bullying when she wants something, to Michael Shannon’s softly spoken but bitterly two-faced Walt, to Toni Collette’s seemingly liberal lady of the people Joni, who is actually as lazy and entitled as all the rest. It’s a host of delightful performances, not forgetting Don Johnson who is a revelation as Curtis’ conniving husband and Chris Evans (having a whale of a time) as the waspishly intelligent, smirking playboy.

Each of the family is as convinced of their own virtue as they are indifferent to those around them. Is it any wonder Thrombey wants to be shot of all of them? Even with the good-natured Marta, none of the family seem to have a clue of anything about her (much as they protest she is part of the family), each of them seemingly naming at random some South American country she hails from and each member in turn telling her confidingly that they would have loved to have had her at the funeral, but they were outvoted by the rest. It makes for a perfect collection of suspects for our detective.

Benoit Blanc himself is a fascinating collection of mannerisms and little touches. The name brings to mind the idea of Hercule Poirot, and Blanc has touches of the man’s arrogance and humanity. Craig has a whale of a time with the part, lacing it with a Southern charm and an eccentric swagger. It’s a part though that actually is a bit of a homage to Columbo, with Blanc also encouraging people to underestimate him and not take him seriously, only to suddenly reveal his insight (including in a last act revelation that is so pure Christie that super-fan Trooper Wagner can barely contain his glee). Blanc is in any case a brilliantly deployed near decoy protagonist, one who Johnson is encouraging us to underestimate as much as most of the characters do.

Thrombey’s murder – and Thrombey has a slight air of Agatha Christie to him, not least the fact that he has written the same number of best-selling books as Christie – is the key to it, and hinges on the overcomplex mind of the great murder writer himself. Johnson’s script is superbly playful, brilliantly written and a delight for murder mystery fans, full of wit and invention and also a very genuinely constructed and intelligent murder mystery. A terrific, playful and witty little treat.

The Letter (1940)

Bette Davis plots doom and death in The Letter. Can she be caught?

Director: William Wyler

Cast: Bette Davis (Leslie Crosbie), Herbert Marshall (Robert Crosbie), James Stephenson (Howard Joyce), Frieda Inescort (Dorothy Joyce), Gale Sondergaard (Mrs Hammond), Bruce Lester (John Withers), Elizabeth Earl (Adele Ainsworth), Cecil Kellaway (Prescott), Sen Yung (Ong Chi Seng)

The “woman’s picture” was a popular genre of the 1940s, a catch-all for stories that centred around women dealing with domestic issues in the home or in relationships, with the lady herself the driving force of the narrative. There were several stars who excelled in this wide-ranging genre, but the best was perhaps Bette Davis. This melodrama is a superb example of exactly this sort of female-led narrative, focusing in on its heroine making catastrophic decisions that lead to terrible consequences.

On a plantation in Malaya, in the late 1930s, Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) the wife of gentle plantation owner Robert (Herbert Marshall) guns down a man, Geoff Hammond, who comes to visit her in her home alone. She insists to her husband, and their lawyer Howard Joyce (James Stephenson), that she was defending her honour. The trial for murder feels like a formality – until Joyce’s clerk Ong Chi Seng (Sen Yung) informs him that Hammond had a Eurasian wife (Gale Sondergaard) who has a letter from Leslie to the dead man which casts a very different light on the affair. Because “affair” is the right word: the letter implies Leslie invited the man to visit her while her husband was out. Mrs Hammond will hand the letters over to the authority – unless Leslie and Joyce cough up a huge sum of money to stop her.

The Letter is a film with two marvellous book-end scenes. The first is a beautifully shot and assembled murder sequence, where Wyler’s camera moodily pans through the sleeping native workers on the plantation – dappled by moonlight – until it finds itself drawn towards the steps of the plantation house by the sounds of gunfire. It’s a superbly marshalled sequence that mixes stillness and quiet from the start with a sudden explosion of noise, reflected in the shift in editing from slow camera movements to fast cuts. Nothing else in the film quite matches it until we reach the final sequence that mirrors it with Bette Davis heading back outside into the moonlight, where a terrible and violent surprise awaits her.

And you can enjoy that because no-one did these brutal, arrogant, high-society queens as well as Bette Davis. Davis is superb here, bringing just the right touch of melodrama to balance the intensity of Leslie’s selfish desperation to get away with what we immediately know is an act of murder. Leslie Crosbie is entitled, arch and a natural liar who carefully builds a series of alternative stories (each of them less believable than the one before) which she spins carefully with a mix of vulnerability and a dash of feminine weakness, to try and get away with murder. It’s a domineeringly strong performance that powers the entire film and Wyler draws a wonderful arch cruelty from her, just below the surface of her acceptable female hobbies of knitting and dinner planning. 

Wyler balances this with the two men around her, both of whom are under her spell to different degrees. Herbert Marshall is very good as her husband, a generous, loving, naïve soul who believes his wife without question until he later realises he shouldn’t. Marshall does an excellent job with making this hen-pecked weakling intriguing, not least in his later passive-aggressive response when discovering most of his fortune has been blown to save his wife from a certain death sentence.

The other man is her lawyer Howard Joyce, played with a patrician reserve by James Stephenson. Oscar-nominated for the role, Stephenson’s Joyce doubts everything he is told from the very start, but somehow allows himself to be dragged along with the cover-up that slowly develops. Whether this is out of pride, or whether this is because he is himself somehow under some sort of erotic spell that she emits is left open to question. Either way, Stephenson puts a wonderful growing aghast horror behind the role as his professional and moral scruples are challenged more and more.

The chicanery of Davis’ character in the film is of course helped by her being white and rich, and prejudices against Hammond (not to mention the reception his Eurasian wife expects to gets if she comes forward) are most of the mainstay of the case in her defence. Joyce basically speaks platitudes about professional integrity, while all but knowingly defending a murderer (he in fact goes out of his way to give himself plausible denial and avoids questions). The film manages to present the native workers on the plantation – and Joyce’s clerk – as something a bit more than this, as perhaps the only people in the film with actual integrity.

But of course Davis gets away with it, because she can pay to do so, but the film finds other ways to punish her (as these women’s pictures usually do for adultery). The film’s final sequences see Davis’ character slowly collapse from arrogant certainty into moral and mental torture, before almost willingly marching towards certain danger. Wyler’s film is a great vehicle for her, but it’s also superbly made and shot and captures the sweaty lack of justice in the British Empire with perfection.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig investigate unspeakable evil in David Fincher’s superb The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo adaptation

Director: David Fincher

Cast: Daniel Craig (Mikael Blomkvist), Rooney Mara (Lisbeth Slander), Christopher Plummer (Henrik Vanger), Stellan Skarsgård (Martin Vanger), Steven Berkoff (Dirch Frode), Robin Wright (Erika Berger), Yorick van Wageningen (Nils Bjurman), Joely Richardson (Anita Vanger), Goran Višnjić (Dragan Armansky), Donald Sumpter (Detective Morell), Ulf Friberg (Hans-Erik Wennerström), Geraldine James (Cecilia Vanger), Embeth Davidtz (Annik Giannini), Julian Sands (Young Henrik Vanger), David Dencik (Young Morell), Tony Way (Plague), Alan Dale (Detective Isaksson)

At the time of its release, there was a slightly cool reaction to David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Most reviewers were already familiar with the story twice over, firstly as the best-selling thriller then as the Swedish film starring Noomi Rapace. Perhaps fans were similarly slightly indifferent, while newbies had already declined the first two options, as the film struggled to crawl its way to breakeven. However, rewatching it, I feel this intriguingly well-made film deserves to be mentioned in the same discussion as another adaptation of a pulp thriller made 20 years earlier: The Silence of the Lambs.

Mikael Blomqvist (Daniel Craig) is a crusading financial journalist and co-owner of Millenniummagazine, whose career is in ruins after his article about the CEO of a major company leads to him losing a costly legal battle for libel. He is approached by retired businessman Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), who asks him to investigate the 40-year-old disappearance of his niece Harriet Vanger, who vanished on their privately owned island estate. Blomqvist is hired after an exhaustive investigation into his personal life by emotionally challenged hacker and private investigator Lisbeth Slander (Rooney Mara), who is facing her own problems of gaining her independence from her position as a ward of the state, represented by her vile guardian Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen). As Blomqvist investigates, eventually with the help of Lisbeth, the trail takes a very dark turn suggesting a sinister hand behind the disappearance not only of Harriet but also of a number of other women around Sweden.

Fincher’s crisply made, icily cold movie embraces the coldness not only of wintery Sweden, but also the film’s chilling subject matter. There are very rarely – if ever – flashes of colour or light, with the world taking on an oppressive blackness and grey or windswept bleakness. It’s a perfect metaphor for the horror of what people do to each other. It’s brilliantly assembled, as you would expect from Fincher, and made with such consummate skill and excellence that its professional chill becomes almost oppressively unsettling, much like the plot itself.

Re-watching it I was put very much in mind of The Silence of the Lambs. That too was a masterfully made adaptation of a pulp novel that found a poetry and depth in the book, framing it around a series of unconventional relationships, with a female lead pushed into a role that sharply defies expectations. Both have at their centre a dangerous figure whose interests align with the other characters. Brilliantly, here the role of dangerously unpredictable genius and unexpected female role are both taken by Lisbeth Slander. (In fact Lisbeth is like a fusing of Clarice and Lector into one character). 

Like Lambs, which tapped into the 1990s obsession with the power of psychiatry and self-analysis and used it as the key to uncovering and defeating criminals, this takes our fascination with computers and the internet and uses that as silver bullet for finding criminals. Just as in the 1990s psychiatrists seemed to have access to some sort of mystical alchemy no one else could understand, so the film shows Lisbeth’s hacker skills as some sort of super power that can blow down secrets and accomplish things no one else can do. 

The film also echoes Lambs in its fascinating look at the place of women in the world. The film revolves around historical violence against women – when we finally have the killer unveiled he confirms women have only ever been his targets – and the film is heavy (in often wordlessly narrated flashbacks) with ominous feelings of danger from a domineering male culture. The world clearly hasn’t changed that much either. The killer continues to operate, everyone in a position of influence we see is an ageing man, Lisbeth’s ward is a vile sexual abuser. But, in this milieu of threat to women, Lisbeth becomes a sort of icon of a woman living life on her terms and taking control of her own life.

Impressively embodied by an Oscar-nominated Rooney Mara, Lisbeth is the sort of character you would normally expect to be a man: surly, anti-social, difficult, prone to violence, sexually indiscriminate, determined to always be in control and decisive in her relationships. She quickly takes the lead in her relationship with Mikael, professionally and later sexually (right down to her telling him where to put his hands during their passionate but also functional sex scenes). Mikael meanwhile takes far more the traditional “female” role: dedicated, hard-working, maternal, competent but better placed as the assistant to a true genius. Daniel Craig gives him a slightly rumpled middle-age quality, combined with a feckless recklessness that lands him in trouble.

The film is Lisbeth’s though, and Fincher brilliantly uses early scenes to establish her defiant, independent character. From snatching her bag back (brutally) from a would-be mugger on the underground, to a surly, blunt lack of respect she shows to a client, she’s painted clearly as a person who will respond how she wants, regardless of any “rules”. But Fincher also makes time to show her vulnerability. Lonely and insecure, she has worked hard to kill any vulnerability in her and protect herself from emotional pain. To see the small notes of tenderness she allows out – from her reaction to a former guardian suffering a stroke to her increasing emotional investment in Mikael – is strikingly engaging.

And we definitely see her suffering. If we had any doubts about one of the themes of this film being about how powerful men abuse and control women, the sub-plot of Lisbeth’s abusive warden (played with the pathetic, creepy relish of the small man enjoying what control he has by Yorick van Wageningen) hammers it home. The four key scenes between these characters cover a mini-arc in themselves from abuse of power, assault, revenge and power shift. Lisbeth may suffer terribly – more than she expects, much to her shock – but the sequence not only shows her ability to survive but also to turn the tables to her advantage. You could argue that this sort of rape-revenge fantasy might trivialise the impact rape has on real people – but it’s crucial for the theme of the film that there is hope that the sort of scum that abuse their positions can be stopped and that victims can survive and thrive. 

And you’ll need this as the film expands both into the past and the present day into a series of increasingly grim cases of historical abuse and murder. Fincher presents all this with the same brilliant, non-exploitative control that Jonathan Demme managed in Lambs. Despite the horrors of the themes, there is no lingering on anything graphic. Instead Fincher uses the tension of slowness, of steady camera work, of careful pacing to let tension and unease build up as we feel something is horribly wrong but never can be quite sure what. The final confrontation with the killer is not only deeply unsettling for it being one of the most brightly lit sequences of the film, but also for the middle-class banality of the villain’s taste (you’ll never listen to Orinoco Flow in the same way again) and the fascinatingly business-like approach he brings to his deeds of slaughter. 

The Girl with the Dragan Tattoo is such a well-made film that perhaps that’s its greatest weakness. It’s a little too easy to see a lack of personality in it, a professionalism, a clean perfection, a master craftsman quality, that you feel you are watching a studio picture made by a great director. And maybe you are: but then you could say the same about many of Hitchcock’s film, a director Fincher consciously echoes here. Superbly acted not just by the leads but by the whole cast (Plummer, Skarsgård and Wright are excellent while even Berkoff gives a restrained performance) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the sort of film that will surely only be considered in a warmer and warmer light as time goes by.

Death on the Nile (1978)

The all-star cast line-up for murder and mayhem in Death on the Nile

Director: John Guillermin

Cast: Peter Ustinov (Hercule Poirot), Jane Birkin (Louise Bourget), Lois Chiles (Linnet Ridgeway Doyle), Bette Davis (Marie van Schuyler), Mia Farrow (Jacqueline de Bellefort), Jon Finch (James Ferguson), Olivia Hussey (Rosalie Otterbourne), George Kennedy (Andrew Pennington), Angela Lansbury (Salome Otterbourne), Simon MacCorkindale (Simon Doyle), David Niven (Colonel Race), Maggie Smith (Miss Bowers), Jack Warden (Dr Bessner), IS Johar (Mr Choudhury), Harry Andrews (Barnstaple)

Is there anything more perfect for a Bank Holiday afternoon than an all-star Agatha Christie adaptation? Take a look at the TV schedules on those days and sure enough one of them will pop up. So on New Year’s Day, I took my place on the sofa for a welcome revisit to dastardly goings-on aboard a luxury cruise ship sailing down the Nile. 

Simon Doyle (Simon MacCorkindale) has jilted his lover Jacqueline de Bellefort (Mia Farrow) in order to marry the fabulously wealthy Linnet Ridgeway (Lois Chiles). It’s a tricky love triangle – so you can imagine the newly-married Doyles are far from pleased to find Jacqueline popping up on their Nile cruise holiday. Things eventually explode into a confrontation between Simon and Jacqueline that leaves him shot in the leg and her sedated. While they are both out of the picture, Linnet is murdered in her bed. With the two obvious suspects out of the picture, who among the (all-star) passenger line-up did the deed? Just as well Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov) is on the ship to solve the puzzle.

Following on the heels of the smash hit success of 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express, the producers of that film didn’t really shake up the formula too much. Hire a load of star actors, pick one of Agatha Christie’s most picturesque-set novels and then watch the money come pouring in. Albert Finney wasn’t available to come back (rumour had it he wasn’t keen in any case on the huge amount of make-up involved) so instead Peter Ustinov came on board and away we went.

Death on the Nile feels very much like a film following a formula. Perhaps it struggles to live up to the first film because it is a slightly less compelling mystery than the first film (although still a damn good puzzle with a real twist of a solution). Perhaps it was more difficult to recapture the magic? Or perhaps it’s because it lacks the quality of direction that Sidney Lumet brought to the first film. Lumet managed to create something that always felt more than a vehicle for star turns – the more plodding John Guillermin instead feels like the sort of guy brought in to manage the day-to-day realisation of a producer’s vision (essentially the same role he fulfilled on The Towering Inferno). Death on the Nile feels very comfortable on the television perhaps because it is filmed in a very straightforward, unobtrusive style with less visual panache than many of the David Suchet series Poirots (even the earlier ones).

But the film does a good job in hiring Peter Ustinov. Ustinov has the comedic chops – matched with the acting prowess – to walk a fine line between the drama and the slight air of comedy that underpins the film. The sort of performance that tells everyone that this is essentially a Christmas treat and shouldn’t be treated too seriously – but still conveys enough of the character’s humanistic shock and anger at violence and murder. Poirot can very easily become a slightly ridiculous character, and Ustinov is canny enough to realise that (relative) underplaying of the character actually works rather well to make him engaging and entertaining, but not too heavy.

Not that heavy is the film’s problem, as this is a pretty light soufflé. The all-star actors happily go through their paces, although you can pretty much tell most of them are in this for the free holiday and the pay cheque. Most of them have fun with their parts – none more so than Angela Lansbury who goes way way way over the top as a bohemian novelist – but they pretty much go through the motions. Shaffer’s decent screenplay doesn’t do much in any case to sketch these characters out – and you suspect much of the bitchy duelling between Bette Davis’ selfish rich widow and Maggie Smith’s put-upon companion was spun out post casting. 

Saying that, I was rather taken with Olivia Hussey’s performance as a fundamentally decent person in the middle of the madness, while Lois Chiles is good enough that you regret her career didn’t really go anywhere after this film. Simon MacCorkindale and Mia Farrow also do well with tricky parts. But it’s all pretty much paint-by-numbers stuff.

Visually the film looks lovely on the Nile. The costumes and designs are great – even if some of them look pretty much straight out of the 1970s rather than the 1930s – and you can tell that the money has been lavished on it to make a pure, old-fashioned entertainment. Shaffer’s script does a decent job of adapting one of Christie’s most twisty tales – even if it does give us what feels now a pretty racist portrait of the meek and crawling ship manager played by IS Johar.

But this is safe and comfortable entertainment – and it definitely is entertaining – rather than something that feels truly filmic. You could argue that this film more than any other set the tone for what we expect from an Agatha Christie adaptation – and its mixture of light comedy and grisly murder set in a lush 1930s location is pretty much de rigeur for everything else that follows. And you know what, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Bunny Lake is Missing (1965)

Carol Lynley’s daughter ‘Bunny’ goes missing – but is the girl real or not? Classic noir mystery Bunny Lake is Missing

Director: Otto Preminger

Cast: Laurence Olivier (Superintendent Newhouse), Carol Lynley (Ann Lake), Kier Dullea (Steven Lake), Martita Hunt (Ada Ford), Anna Massey (Elvira Smollett), Clive Revill (Sergeant Andrews), Finlay Currie (The Doll Maker), Lucia Mannheim (The Cook), Noël Coward (Horatio Wilson)

Otto Preminger’s career was an interesting mixture of high-brow, noirish thrillers and pulpish adaptations. Bunny Lake Is Missing is a mixture of these, a restructuring of a hit novel. Transplanting the novel from New York to London, the film covers a single day and the investigation into a missing child ‘Bunny’ Lake. Her American mother Ann Lake (Carol Lynley) drops her at her new school, and returns at the end of the day to find no one has seen her daughter or any record of her existence. While her protective brother Steven (Kier Dullea) rants and rages, Superintendent Newhouse (Laurence Olivier) leads the investigation. As Newhouse fails to find any evidence for the child’s existence at all, the question is asked: is she a figment of Ann’s fragile imagination?

Preminger plays this delicate game of “guess who” with the audience for a skilled and enjoyable 90 minutes before giving us any form of answer. The film throws us straight into the mystery of whether Bunny is real or not from the off, as our first shot of Ann is her alone in the school after dropping her daughter off. We see as little evidence of Bunny’s existence as the cast does. From there it’s a careful balance between giving us enough reasons to both trust Ann’s conviction her daughter is real and also give us enough reasons to suspect that Ann may be as unbalanced as Newhouse is concerned she might be. 

It’s quite the game the film plays, and Preminger does it very well, the film never tipping the hand too much one way or the other. Shot in luscious black and white, it’s a film of noirish shadows and imposing blackness where everything feels a little bit out of kilter and untrustworthy. Preminger throws us into Ann’s perspective by using a number of clever tracking shots that allow us to follow her through the events of each scenes. These shots are sustained, subtle and also give us a further subconscious reason to trust her – we are effectively seeing the events of the film side-by-side with her. It makes for a rather empathetic film, and one you find yourself investing into.

Not least because it completely understands the twin horrors of both losing a child and not being believed by anyone no matter how desperate you plead that you are telling the truth (no matter how generous people are while doing so). Preminger acutely understands we all deep down worry that we are going to be let down by those we need to believe in – and this feeling of concern, mixed with frustration and pity for Ann is what draws us to her. Even while we think there is more behind Bunny’s existence than meets the eye.

The screenplay by John and Penelope Mortimer also throws plenty of potential suspects at us. These are largely a series of delicious cameos for vintage British actors. These extreme odd-balls also make the two Americans in London (Ann in particular) seem even more like fishes out of water. Martita Hunt is excellent value as a retired school headmistress, seemingly confined to a bedroom in the attic of the school (!) whose hobby is recording children talking about their nightmares. Anna Massey is equally good as a harassed matron more concerned about the negative impact on the school’s reputation than child’s safety. Pick of the bunch of this rogues gallery is Noël Coward (having a whale of a time) as Ann’s drunken landlord, a faded actor and sexually ambiguous seductress who in one priceless scene gleefully shows a group of police detectives some of his favourite whips (“I find the sensation [of being whipped] rather titillating…[this was] reputed to belong to the great one himself. The Marquis de Sade”) from his collection of bizarre sex toys.

These perverts, oddballs and weirdos are all investigated with a cool professionalism by Laurence Olivier’s Superintendent Newhouse. Olivier gives possibly one of his most humane, restrained and engaging performances: he’s the epitome of caring, dedicated professionalism and a superbly humane detective. Carrying much of the burden of conveying the films narrative, Olivier is superb here – and he manages to make Newhouse exactly the sort of man you would long to investigate your child’s disappearance, even as he starts to doubt the child even exists. Olivier is in fact so strong, that the parts of the film where he disappears suffer noticeably from his absence – no one else among the principles can match him for presence.

Saying that, Carol Lynley does an excellent job as a character we invest in and sympathise with, but can never quite bring ourselves to be sure is reliable. It’s a difficult line she walks between being believably distraught and simultaneously slightly off kilter, enough to make you worry that she be (knowingly or not) making the whole thing up. The feeling may be more than helped by the exceptionally weird relationship between herself and her brother, one of an incestuously unsettling intensity (their relationship as brother and sister isn’t divulged until almost 15 minutes into the film and it’s as much a surprise to the audience as it is to the characters).

Kier Dullea as her brother gives a decent, if rather strained performance, as Steven. Dullea’s slight emptiness in the role can perhaps be partly attributed to his terrible relationship with Preminger, later claiming making the film was the worst experience of his life. (Olivier was also unimpressed calling Preminger a bully). 

It’s a shame as Dullea is crucial to the final sections of the film. I won’t give away the reveal and solution, but Preminger overplays his hand here, stretching the final sequence of the film out to a full 15 minutes which rather overstays its welcome. Maybe the sort of psychological complexity it’s aiming for is a bit more familiar to use today, than it was in 1965, but it certainly feels like a scene overstretched. But that’s a blemish on a very solid mystery before then that brings more than enough pulpish pleasure, fine performances and interesting film making to reward rewatching.

Gumshoe (1971)

Fulton Mackay and Albert Finney in charming Liverpool set Chandler spoof Gumshoe

Director: Stephen Frears

Cast: Albert Finney (Eddie Ginley), Billie Whitelaw (Ellen Ginley), Frank Finlay (William Ginley), Janice Rule (Mrs Blankerscoon), Carolyn Seymour (Alison), Fulton Mackay (Straker), George Innes (De Fries), Billy Dean (Tommy), Wendy Richard (Anne Scott), Maureen Lipman (Naomi)

Film noir is a genre beloved by many, and – with its many conventions and, in particular, its hard-boiled Chanderlesque style – it’s also ripe for parody. That’s what Gumshoe does here, transplanting the rough, grimy mysteries of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade to Liverpool in the 1970s. In doing so, it allows Albert Finney to let rip with the sort of hugely enjoyable personality performance that plays to his strengths.

Finney plays Eddie Ginley, a would-be comedian and entertainer in his thirties, obsessed with Chandler and Hammett. Placing an advert in the paper offering his services for private investigations in the spirit of a lark, he finds himself hired to look into a decidedly complex affair concerning a female lecturer, a fat South African, an occult bookshop, an unhappy South African political refugee and quite possibly his brother William (Frank Finlay) and his old flame and now sister-in-law Ellen (Billie Whitelaw).

Gumshoe is a an enjoyable, small-scale, cine-literate drama, with a playful script by Neville Smith that has a wonderful ear both for the style of Hollywood detective drama, and the streets of Liverpool – and knows how to mix them together. Shot simply by Stephen Frears (who rather sweetly claims on the blu-ray documentary to not have had a clue what he was doing), the film rattles along with a few good jokes, some decent set-ups and an actually rather good mystery. It largely falls just the right side of parody – not too smarmy, affectionate enough but never taking itself too seriously. It’s a very well judged pastiche – and it’s also a pretty damn good mystery itself.

The film was somewhat of a passion project for Albert Finney (his production company put up much of the funding).  And you can see why, as Finney is excellent – relaxed, smart and funny. Eddie Ginley is part dreamer, part realist trying not to see the truth around him. He knows this world of detecting is partly a game, partly dangerous, partly a fantasy – but he wants to enjoy while it he can. Finney also clearly enjoys the sort of Marlowesque dialogue, just as he gives real emotional depth to a man who has always been looked down on by his brother, and jilted by his girlfriend for said brother. It’s one of his best performances, he’s outstanding – a charming, playful, warm and also super-smart and cunning performance.

The rest of the film gives playful highlight moments for a number of performers, wrapped up in the enjoyment of the material. Finlay does a decent job as a stuffed-shirt straight man, Billie Whitelaw enjoys a sly parody of any number of femme fatales from 1940s movies, and Janice Rule is intimidating as a very different type of suspicious female. The best supporting performance however comes from Fulton Mackay as a brusque but wry Scottish hitman, tailing Ginley throughout the film to reclaim money he feels is owed to him. 

It’s a shame that a fun, playful and engaging film has in some places dated so badly. Not least in its language aimed at a black heavy Ginley gets into a scrap with. Intimidated and off-guard, Ginley falls back onto banter aimed to put the heavy off balance – but which listened to today is basically a string of vile racial slurs using words like jungle, bananas, trees etc. etc. etc. And the attitudes are repeated time and again in the film, with the character constantly referred to in the most derogatory and racialist terms. Mind you at least Oscar James as the butt of this gets a neat dig at Ginley hardly being “the Great White Hope” after a brief bout of fisitcuffs.

It’s an interesting sign of how dated the film is that the villains are racist apartheid South Africans, Finney was at the time a leading campaigner against Apartheid, but neither he nor the film clearly  put calling a black man a monkey into the same bracket as that bigoted system. No one involved really is a racist, not even the characters – it just wasn’t deemed a problem to say those things in the 1970s. (Even the booklet in Indicator’s excellent blu-ray dwells on this uncomfortable dated material).

But, bench that from your mind, and you’ve got a charming, fun pastiche that pokes a lot of fun at Bogart and Chandler. The make-believe fun of Eddie’s Marlowesque hard-boiled dialogue is constantly punctured by him having to explain what he’s trying to say. The film has a lot of fun with the details of a mystery, but still keeps that smart sense of tongue-in-cheek. It’s packed with some excellent lines and some sharp performances. Finney is superb. It’s a pastiche and an affectionate homage of a whole genre – and, although it is old-fashioned and feels a bit dated, it will I think stand up to re-watching.

Suspicion (1941)

Is Cary Grant plotting to murder Joan Fontaine? Oh the Suspicion.

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Cary Grant (Johnnie Aysgarth), Joan Fontaine (Lina Aysgarth), Nigel Bruce (Gordon Cochrane ‘Beaky’ Thwaite), Cedric Hardwicke (General McLaidlow), May Whitty (Martha McLaidlow), Isabel Jeans (Helen Newsham), Heather Angel (Ethel), Auriol Lee (Isabel Sedbusk), Leo G Carroll (Captain George Malbeck)

What do you do when you suddenly start to believe you might be living in a murder mystery? When you begin to think that the person you are married to might just be planning to dispatch you as well? That’s the big suspicion that haunts the mind of Lina Aysgarth (Joan Fontaine), a shy and meek heiress who has been charmed into marrying waster Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant), a lazy spendthrift and playboy. After they elope together, she quickly finds out that Johnnie has no work ethic or talent at all other than spending money. As real estate deals fall through, and Johnnie steals money from his employer to cover his debts, Lina starts to worry that her life insurance is looking more and more tempting to Johnnie.

Suspicion is a decent, middle-of-the-road Hitchcock thriller, which deals with familiar themes of doubt, dread and (of course) suspicion, but with Hitchcock very much in second gear. He’s not helped by the neutering of the source material. The original novel is very much a story of a woman who works out that her husband is definitely trying to kill her. The producers here, however, couldn’t abide the idea that CARY GRANT could be plotting to kill his wife. So the story is rejigged at the end to turn Lina into a silly, paranoid woman and Johnnie into, well yes a playboy, but also one who has been treated badly because of the suspicion thrown at him. This may have flown in 1941, but it’s impossibly sexist today. Plus it means the whole film basically builds towards – well – nothing.

Hitchcock throws in the odd decent flourish – most famously the carefully lit glass of milk that Johnnie carries up the stairs near the film’s end, which may or may not be poisoned. But far too often the story seems to be taking place in a fairytale England, of horses riding to hounds, country villages, Agatha Christie style authors dispensing accidental poisoning advice, and careful class structures. For all the odd moments of danger, the film is safe, contained and as unthreatening as it can get. But the rest is Hitch on autopilot, which feels at time as a remix of the director’s earlier Oscar winning film Rebecca.

That mood carries across to Joan Fontaine as well in the lead role. Fresh off working with Hitchcock on Rebecca, Fontaine essentially recreates the same role again here as the timid, shy, would-be dutiful wife who wants to see the best in a husband who in fact seems dangerous and unknowable. Fontaine won the Oscar for this film – but it feels as much like a compensation award for her previous defeat for Rebecca as it does for Suspicion. Really she does very little here that lifts the film, or stretches her as a performer from her previous role. It’s a retread, and while it’s a trick she does well, it’s a trick she has done before.

A far more challenging performance comes from Cary Grant, who uses the role as a clever meta-commentary on his own persona. Johnnie has all the charm and engaging bonhomie of Grant himself, but all subtly twisted with a selfish superficiality and wastrel greed. Grant walks a very fine line of a man who could be plotting to murder his wife or could just be a greedy chancer – and walks it very well indeed. You always see that Johnnie is bad news, while also understanding why Lina finds him so engaging. It’s a terrifically skilled performance, a lovely riff on Grant’s own screen persona, that shows he’s a far better actor than people often give him credit for – and you feel he is only too willing to embrace the chance to play a weak-willed, opportunistic murderer with little conscience (except of course it turns out he isn’t a murderer). 

It’s a shame that nothing else in the film really rises to the occasion in the same way (although Nigel Bruce gives a very good performance as the gentle, ageing playboy Beaky). The film itself never really seems to be heading anywhere – it even takes a good two-thirds of its runtime before Lina begins to wake up to the fact that Johnnie is far from being the sort of husband women should dream of. It’s a bit slow, a bit too safe, and it largely lacks the element of danger. For the final few scenes, logic seems to evacuate the film as all the clues and hints we’ve had building towards us are shown to be – nothing more than red herrings and the inferences of a silly woman. Because, after all, CARY GRANT can’t be a murderer can he? No matter what he wants.

The Talented Mr Ripley (1999)

Matt Damon, Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow get wrapped up in murder and mayhem in The Talented Mr Ripley

Director: Anthony Minghella

Cast: Matt Damon (Tom Ripley), Gwyneth Paltrow (Marge Sherwood), Jude Law (Dickie Greenleaf), Cate Blanchett (Meredith Logue), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Freddie Miles), Jack Davenport (Peter Smith-Kingsley), James Rebhorn (Herbert Greenleaf), Sergio Rubini (Inspector Roverini), Philip Baker Hall (Alvin MacCarron), Celia Weston (Aunt Joan)

Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley – sociopath, confidence trickster, human blank piece of paper and murderer – is so unknowable he’s been played on screen by actors as wildly diverse as Alain Delon, Dennis Hopper, John Malkovich, Barry Pepper and, perhaps most famously today, by Matt Damon. Ripley’s complexity – Highsmith described him as “suave, agreeable and utterly amoral” – and his general blankness and ability to adapt to different situations make him a challenging character to bring to the screen. Minghella’s film goes for a dark, Hitchcockian feeling drama that gives a lot of focus to feelings of sexual confusion and inadequacy in Ripley that motivate his actions and increasingly spiral out of control, leaving him isolated and damaged.

Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) allows himself to be mistaken by the owner of a shipping line, Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn), as an old Harvard classmate of his son Dickie (Jude Law). Inveigling his way into Herbert’s trust, he is sent to Italy to persuade Dickie to return to America and take up a job in his father’s company. Happily taking the all-expenses-paid trip, Ripley finds himself besotted with the glamour and easy charm of Dickie, a handsome playboy, and soon positions himself as travelling companion to Dickie and his fiancée Marge Sherwood (Gwyneth Paltrow). But Dickie’s attention is only fleeting, and soon Ripley feels betrayed as Dickie starts to refocus elsewhere – leading eventually to Ripley murdering Dickie in a fit of jealous pique and using his faint resemblance to Dickie’s passport photo to assume his identity and live off his allowance – all the while dodging meeting Marge, friends of Dickie and the police (who are searching for the disappeared Tom Ripley).

Minghella’s film is a complex, psycho-sexual thriller, shot with a sun-kissed warmth that accentuates the glamour and style of the Italian Riviera, while subtly keeping us distant from the characters and their increasingly complex motives. The richness and lushness of these expensive lives look as appealing and seductive to us as Ripley finds them when he arrives. However, its dark undertone is never lost, and the film is edited and assembled with a certain chill and coolness while Gabriel Yared’s score mixes some fun jazz remixes with more a ominous tone as the bodies start to pile up.

I love a lot of Minghella’s work. He’s an intelligent and literate director, and the script he prepared for this film shows that he’s a master of taking complex, multi-layered pieces of fiction and turning them into something impressive and cinematic. But watching The Talented Mr Ripley, with its effective mix of period charm and sixties swing, its clever apeing of sixties filming styles, its riffing on Hitchcockian tropes and its picture book locations around Italy, part of me wonders if this film started pushing him too far down the path of being a “literary” director. His film is intelligent, and alternates between being chilling and fun, but at times it’s also wearing its “important film-making” badge a little heavily. It’s like the film is straining a little too much for prestige, as if the luscious design, complex plotting, sharp dialogue and clever visuals are aiming a little too much for matching The English Patient’s Oscar hoovering.

Maybe that’s why, despite everything that is good here, this film doesn’t have quite the same success as that film. This is, I’ll confess, an odd thing to say in a film that is generally very positive – if a little too long – but there it is. Sometimes these things are intangible in a way. Part of the film’s problem is that very complexity of plotting and motivation that he (arguably) builds on from the book. One of the film’s biggest question marks hangs over Ripley himself.

Imagined here as a slightly diffident, awkward, closeted graduate, he never really convinces as the kind of ruthless opportunist the plot demands him to be. Much as the film – and Damon’s performance – nails the sociopathic blankness of Ripley, his ability to switch smoothly from persona to persona, at the same time Ripley either seems to care too much or too little. Damon never quite convinces as a man so in love with the highlife that he is happy living off the allowance of (and pretending to be) the adored friend he bludgeons to death in a boat. 

This is where the homosexual undertone of the original has been converted into a overtone – and the film’s overplaying of Ripley’s physical, puppy-dog attraction to Dickie make him feel more dependent. The film works really hard to make him as sympathetic and vulnerable as possible, to make him a victim of his own warped circumstances and morality, and it never quite manages to make this make sense, or to carry real consistency. For all you feel Minghella wants us to think we are drilling into what makes a killer, the more we learn about Ripley the less substantial as a character he feels.

Damon, despite this, gives a good and generous performance. Generous because, playing quite a pathetic, indescribably blank man, he really manages to fade into the background of scenes. It does mean that he cedes most of the best work to his co-stars. Jude Law is radiantly cool, fiery, passionate, selfish and hugely attractive in a star-making turn as Dickie. Philip Seymour Hoffman is the epitome of a Bullingdon club bully turned young adult as Dickie’s school friend, seizing scenes with a louche aggressiveness. Cate Blanchett is equally brilliant as a warm, friendly socialite who inadvertently stirs terrible ideas in Ripley.

These actors are all highlights in a superbly mounted production, but one which doesn’t reveal or tell us as much as we might expect. Instead, Minghella gets slightly lost in his own intelligence when adapting the book, pushing the story into deeper, psycho-sexual motivations for its character that end up obscuring and fudging the actions he carries out in the film. It’s a gorgeous looking film, packed with wonderful scenes, but Damon’s Ripley seems too sensitive, too prone to the edge of tears, impossible to see as a man who could become a serial murderer. By giving a greater hinterland to Ripley, Minghella also changes the character fundamentally. It makes for an interesting development – but Ripley’s desperation, his essential weakness, his lack of control make him feel inconsistent with the setting and plot he is in.

The Da Vinci Code (2006)

Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou stumble through the dire The Da Vinci Code, possibly one of the dullest films ever made

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Tom Hanks (Robert Langdon), Audrey Tautou (Sophie Neveu), Ian McKellen (Sir Leigh Teabing), Jean Reno (Captain Bezu Fache), Paul Bettany (Silas), Alfred Molina (Bisoph Aringarosa), Jürgen Prochnow (André Vernet), Étienne Chicot (Lieutenant Jérôme Collet), Jean-Yves Berteloot (Remy Jean), Jean-Pierre Marielle (Jacques Saunière)

In 2003 the world went a little crazy. Maybe it was all the buzz of conspiracy that seemed to be everywhere. Maybe people wanted a bit of escapism from the misery of our post-9/11 world. Or maybe there is just no accounting for taste. But inexplicably, a staggeringly poorly written thriller by a hack author, peddling a tired old conspiracy, became one of the most popular books of all time. Yup, ladies and gentlemen, it was a time of silliness, paranoia and poor taste. It was the time of The Da Vinci Code.

When the curator of the Louvre (Jean-Pierre Marielle) is found dead in the museum, with his body covered with bizarre self-inflicted wounds and symbols, visiting Professor of Symbology from Harvard Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is called in to consult. Langdon quickly finds himself the main suspect and on the run, aided only by the victim’s granddaughter Sophie (Audrey Tautou in a truly thankless part of continual question asking, devoid of any agency). Following a trail of bizarre clues, Langdon ends up investigating a conspiracy that leads to the heart of the Catholic Church – could the Church be founded on a lie? Could Jesus Christ have in fact been married to Mary Magdalene? Could she have been his intended heir? Did she have a child? Has a secret society run (at various times) by the Knights Templar, Leonardo Da Vinci and Isaac Newton worked since the dawn of time to protect the secret? Of course they haven’t, but that’s not going to stop the film.

Okay let’s get the main event out of the way. This is a terrible film. But it’s not terrible for the reason you might think. I mean, sure, it’s poorly scripted bobbins, with poorly developed ciphers for characters, and it peddles a conspiracy theory which is total, illogical nonsense from top to bottom. But that’s not the main reason. The main reason this film is terrible is that it is so unbelievably fucking boring.

The film is an utterly faithful, practically scene-by-scene reproduction of Dan Brown’s book. And it immediately reveals how little Brown knows about how to write a good thriller. The film has two or three action “set pieces” or moments of tension – at least, they would be tense, if only there were any stakes to the situation, or the characters’ motivations or the peril they’re in made the slightest bit of sense. They don’t. You’ll barely remember the car chase, or any of the moments where the heroes are held at gunpoint. None of the characters have any definable personalities, other than what they are invested with by the actors playing them. But then that’s no surprise from a novel where the lead character is defined solely by being brainy, having a Mickey Mouse watch (such a character!) and (film rights pleading ahoy) looking like Harrison Ford.

Just like Dan Brown’s turgid original, this film quickly turns into a series of scenes where characters fling exposition at each other to whizz us through a series of sub-par brainteasers and anagrams, which are only solvable with information the characters have but the audience doesn’t (hardly making it a fun thing to play along with). You’ll find yourself wishing for those anagrams back though, once they move on to spunking the novel’s bizarre conspiracy theory into our ears. The low point of this is when Ian McKellen’s polio-suffering billionaire historian (a billionaire historian! Who has a private plane! Of course he does…) tees up a handy PowerPoint presentation he just happened to have sitting around ready, and regurgitates all the mystic mumbo-jumbo that the film tries to pass off as fact.

I’m sure I don’t need to recap the nonsense of this film, but seeing it boiled down from the book is a real reminder that Brown clearly read widely but with no depth. For starters, most of his understanding of everything from the church, to the Templars, to the history of Europe is bogged down in inaccuracy and misinterpretation. By the time the film is claiming that Isaac Newton’s discovery of gravity angered the church you’ll have lost all ability to take anything the film says seriously (for the record, the Catholic church didn’t have a problem with gravity, and even if they did, as an Anglican living in a Protestant country, Newton wouldn’t have given a damn anyway).

None of the film’s (or book’s) ideas are even that original – it was all spewed forth in a book called Holy Blood, Holy Grail (several characters here have names that are anagrams of the writers and editors of these books) in 1982. The idea of Jesus having a whole line of secret descendants is arrant bollocks. The idea of a secret society working to protect this secret is even more stupid (it was revealed after the publication of Holy Blood, Holy Grail to be a total hoax, swallowed whole by that book’s writers). There is not a shred of reality here – rather, it’s typical paranoia and anti-establishment bollocks repackaged as dark reveal.

This is before we even touch on the – heaven help us – “art analysis”. The dark hints of conspiracy in The Last Supper by Da Vinci boil down to: (a) there is no Grail in this painting, (b) the bloke to the left of Jesus looks a bit like a girl so must be Mary Magdelene (“a hint of bosom” McKellen tells us playfully), (c) there is an inverted triangle between Christ and this man/woman – so surely a sign of the female dominance! The fact that the painting shows only 12 disciples and Jesus – meaning that if Mary was there, it should show 14 people not 13 – isn’t considered worth mentioning. But then that’s par for the course for the film’s bullshit clues “discovered” in works of art to support the film’s bullshit, anti-Catholic agenda (the church being staffed in this film exclusively by shadowy, Bond-villain types, with a ruthless agenda for extremist Catholicism and murderous Albino hit-monks they dispatch at will). Give me a break.

But if the film had packaged this all up in a gleefully silly, high energy story, it could still have been an entertaining watch. Unfortunately, it’s completely and utterly boring. It goes on (and on) for almost two and a half hours, and in between unengaging lectures and tedious dialogue scenes it drags like you wouldn’t believe. It’s almost impossible to get engaged in anything at all, and it’s really not helped by the flat, dimly lit, for-the-money direction from Ron Howard. There is no zip or fun about the film whatsoever, as if the book’s massive popularity made the producers worried that if they treated the book like an action adventure yarn, or a fun bit of nonsense, then it might offend people. Instead they treat this nonsense with a deathly reverence usually reserved for Biblical epics that’s fatal for the viewing experience of the entire film. 

It’s supremely dull, very self-important, and for all the hard work of an interesting cast of actors (who do their very best) it’s a complete, yawn-filled, pile of stinking crap. As the man said: “Holy Blood? Holy shit.”