McKellen on 'The Da Vinci Code': 'I believed it entirely'

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With the film of The Da Vinci Code raising religious hackles worldwide, Sir Ian McKellen fanned the flames of debate yesterday when he took a mischievous swipe at the Catholic Church for its stance on homosexuality.

While Hollywood leading man Tom Hanks and Ron Howard, the director, insisted the $200m (£106m) blockbuster was "just entertainment", the gay British actor admitted he believed every word of Dan Brown's bestseller while he had been reading it - including the central idea that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and they had children.

Speaking before the movie opened the 59th Cannes Film Festival in France last night, Sir Ian, who plays the historian Sir Leigh Teabing, said Brown had argued his case "very convincingly".

"When I read the book I believed it entirely," he said. "When I put the book down I thought what a load of potential codswallop. But I'm very happy to believe that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. I know that the Catholic Church has problems with gay people. I thought that would be absolute proof Jesus was not gay."

However, he suggested that there was some snobbery over the film - which is expected to attract the millions of fans of the book regardless of poor early reviews.

"When the book came out, the controversy that we're all interested in didn't seem to exist. There were no statements from people in powerful places condemning the book," Sir Ian said.

"Is that because readers can be trusted to have minds whereas people who go to see movies are the mindless masses that need to be protected. I think there's a bit of snobbery going on."

Hanks said he thought The Da Vinci Code was both "crackerjack entertainment" and challenging. But he stressed it was "a work of fiction," not documentary.

There have been protests worldwide over its subversion of Church and Christian history, akin to the upset over Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988. Some Catholics have been particularly upset by the portrayal of the Opus Dei sect - to which the cabinet member Ruth Kelly belongs - in the story.

Sister Mary Michael, a British nun who opposed the filming at Lincoln Cathedral and who prayed outside the premiere last night, said: "The world seems to be in a mess and this film contributes to the confusion." Elsewhere in the festival, two British films are in the prestigious Palme d'Or competition - The Wind that Shakes the Barley about the Irish civil war by the veteran director Ken Loach and Red Road, the first feature from Andrea Arnold who has been battling to get it finished for this weekend.

New works from Sofia Coppola and Pedro Almodovar are among the other films to be assessed by a jury including the British actors Helena Bonham-Carter and Tim Roth and the American Samuel L Jackson. Bonham-Carter said that she would be trusting her instincts but admitted: "On the whole, my taste in films is pretty bad."

Alongside the prizes, Cannes is a major market for deal-making. FilmFour yesterday announced that after the success of The Road to Guantanamo, it is to make a new film with Michael Winterbottom. It will be about a father and his two daughters who try to start a new life after the mother's death.

And Ewan McGregor, Colin Farrell and Tom Wilkinson are to star in the next Woody Allen project which is to be made in London after the New Yorker decided that France was too expensive. McGregor and Farrell will play brothers who turn to crime.