I have a confession. I have read all of Dan Brown’s books, even the ones that don’t feature Robert Langdon. Yes, they are my guilty pleasure, just as some may indulge in “chick-lit” occasionally, my little brain does need a rest from great works of literature from time to time. While, as the comedian Stewart Lee once pointed out, they do contain immense descriptions such as “the famous man looked at the red cup”, there is some entertainment to be drawn from them. Whilst the writing is simplistic and cringe-worthy at times, at least Dan Brown does go to some effort with locations and art history – what’s not to like about a tour of some of Florence’s great paintings in some gorgeous buildings? I like to think that at least some of his millions of readers have been inspired to travel, or find out more about the artists and works he describes (in such simple adjectives) and maybe they shouldn’t be judged for that?
This is the third adaptation of the Langdon novels by Richie Cunningham-turned director Ron Howard, starring Tom Hanks as the “symbologist” – the academic in the tweed jacket with elbow patches, who is seemingly immune from stumbling into adventures taking him to exotic locations around the globe, ably assisted by a highly intelligent and beautiful woman half his age, who finds him irresistible. Of course the whole thing is ridiculous and made all the more hilarious by the casting of Hanks (he is no Harrison Ford) and in ‘Inferno’s’ case, Felicity Jones (soon to be seen in event-movie-of-the-year ‘Rogue One’). However, I cannot help but be swept along in the search for clues in Renaissance art, which always lead Langdon on a treasure hunt and race-against-time to avert some disaster. In this case, the disaster is a global one.
Ben Foster plays Bertrand Zobrist, a billionaire who has decided that in order to save the planet from over-population, he will genetically engineer a plague that will cull the world’s people by half. This theme has been touched on a few times recently, most memorably in my favourite TV programme of the last few years – Channel Four’s ‘Utopia’. The problem is that it is very easy to side with the antagonist’s logical and rational arguments and find yourself rooting for the villain.
The film does have a problem in that (like the book), it launches us straight into the plot at break-neck speed. Langdon is in mortal danger from the get-go, within minutes of the film’s opening, he is being shot at and on the run. Langdon is suffering from amnesia and this creates a disorientating experience as well, leaving the audience struggling to catch up with just what the heck is going on. I cannot imagine what it is like to see one of these Langdon films without having read the book first, but in ‘Inferno’s’ case, I can imagine it is confusing and frustrating. The film has to brush over the parts of Brown’s book which are actually worth your time – the art history – other than the scenes of characters painfully expositioning to each other, telling people onscreen what they already know. The film also sets up Irfan Khan’s character – who is very sinister and mysterious in the book, into a sort of comic foil – an odd decision in the adaptation.
OK – this may be a film that is designed to appeal to the masses, rather than the discerning cinephile, but usually I would still get some entertainment from a Tom Hanks/Ron Howard/Dan Brown film. Unfortunately, even by the relatively low bar of the previous two films, this one does fall short. This was only really worth my time for the whirlwind tour of Florence, Venice and Istanbul. It was also quite morbidly interesting to see Ben Foster turning up for his paycheck (when he appeared in the amazing Hell or High Water earlier in the year) and Felicity Jones visibly questioning her life-choices, when she has the year’s biggest film coming up. It was, however, refreshing that Langdon’s love-interest in this film was far more age-appropriate (I’m not talking about Jones) and it was quite sweet to see Hanks falling for a more mature lady, as he did in Hologram for the King. And the lovely girl really did have a nice face. I will still defend HANX to my dying breath, he can do no wrong for me and I still have a soft-spot for Ron Howard as well. But I guess if you can say that the book was better, in this of all cases, than this really wasn’t a very good film.