Like Ian Fleming who embellished pulp fiction with gorgeous girls, gadgets and a debonair spy who is licensed to kill, Dan Brown discovered the perfect recipe for a bestseller in art history, religion and conspiracies which are licensed to thrill.
Helmer Howard’s ornate adaptation of Brown’s third novel after The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons has Tom Hanks reprising the role of the unassuming and extremely likeable Prof Robert Langdon who jets off as usual to the most opulent museums, art galleries and churches on a dangerous quest to solve a mystery.
This time around, Florence, Venice and Istanbul provide a sight for sore eyes while Italy’s pride and joy, Dante Alighieri whose epic poem Divine Comedy (The Only Manuscript is a prized possession of Mumbai’s Asiatic Society Library) provides the fulcrum on which the mystery turns. Hell’s bells, Brown has moved away from the Christianity versus science claptrap to Malthus’s discredited theory of overpopulation which still excites the shrivelled souls of billionaire sociopaths like Zobrist (Ben Foster) who believe the only way to solve the problem of the masses is by wiping them off the face of the earth.
Intriguingly, his henchmen, led by the amoral Mr Sims (Irrfan Khan, shabash) are clueless about his true intentions; all they know is, they’ve been assigned to recover an object from the safe custody of Prof Langdon, who, as the viewer sees at the very beginning of this thriller, has been knocked into a delirium of amnesia and terrifying hallucinations about the Black Plague which ravaged medieval Europe, and Dante’s Divine Comedy and its nine circles of hell, all rendered in CGI glory.
Paralysed by apocalyptic visions and bodily injury, Langdon has to save the world before the dastardly billionaire succeeds in his malevolent project. Help comes in the form of young Dr Sienna (Felicity Jones, fetching) who’s exceedingly well read and knows Langdon’s work, Dante and the Italian Masters. For much of the narrative, the two are pursued through magnificent medieval structures by various groups including Dr Sims’s shadowy cell and a World Health Organisation squad headed by Dr Elizabeth Sinskey (Sidse Babett Knudsen) an old flame of Langdon’s.
The final chapter of the story then moves to Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia Cathedral which was converted into a mosque and years later, into a museum by the great Kemal Ataturk. Unevenly paced, the film comes to a satisfactory conclusion in the underground cisterns of Byzantine Istanbul in the middle of a Western music classical concert attended by a huge audience, mainly tourists. We’ve much to learn from Turkey (and Egypt and Israel) on how to utilise every structure possible for tourism.