Veronica Lee: Hands off Angels and Demons

Reading reviews reminds me why the collective noun for critics is 'sneer'
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The Independent Online

How very predictable; the critics didn't like Angels and Demons, the latest movie based on a Dan Brown novel and starring Tom Hanks, which was released at the weekend and went straight to the No 1 box-office spot in both Britain and the United States.

Well I was brilliantly entertained for two hours and hugely enjoyed this thriller about murky goings-on in the Vatican as a new pope is elected. But I would never know that Angels and Demons was rollicking good fun from the reviews: "stupid", "farcical", "tosh" are just a few descriptives from the range of grudging two-star reviews. I count myself among their number, but I was instantly reminded why the collective noun for critics is a sneer.

The critics' problem is, of course, that Brown's books are too popular by half (for which read sell way more than anything critics might ever produce), and are therefore populist, the worst crime that literature can commit. John Grisham, Harlan Coben, J K Rowling and Martina Cole are writers who regularly top bestseller lists; they are weak on characterisation and fine writing, but are great on narrative and plotting, and produce page-turners without pretension. I don't think for one moment that Dan Brown is a great writer, but he does know how to keep his readers hooked, and that's a skill worthy of some praise, at least.

I'm educated and reasonably well read, but I don't always want to see Ibsen at the theatre or Chabrol at the movies. I enjoy them, too, but sometimes – more often than not, actually – I want to go to the cinema just to be entertained. And besides, a Hollywood movie, whether blockbuster or a more sedate romcom, can often teach me as much about life as Shakespeare or an art-house film, perhaps just not so subtly. One isn't better than another; all can be enjoyed on their own terms, and all are equally valid as entertainment – but not, it seems, if you are a critic.

Angels and Demons' director Ron Howard has produced a film with high production values – the Italian tourist board must be singing his praises for making Rome look even more inviting – yet wouldn't claim his film to be high art. But if we do want to get all intellectual about the movie, it does meet the Reithian ideal to "inform, educate and entertain".

I was brought up as a Catholic, so was familiar with much of what happens in Conclave, but still learnt a lot in a plot stuffed with facts; my companion, however, who was raised without religion, was so entertained by the recondite workings of the Vatican – Brown's work is always meticulously researched – that she went straight out to buy a book on the subject.

I was delighted to see that novelist Kate Mosse pronounced herself "greatly entertained" by Angels and Demons on Newsnight Review last Friday, to much patronising laughter from the other reviewers present. Then again, she should know all about that; when the co-founder of the Orange Prize for Fiction published Labyrinth in 2005, she was dismissed as "venturing into commercial fiction", as if selling books was the last thing an author should want to do. How dare she be so populist?