Umberto Eco, author of the original novel, didn’t want Sean Connery to star. Neither, initially, did the director, Jean-Jacques Annaud. Connery was still fresh from Never Say Never Again and maybe the idea of 007 turning up as a scholarly 14th-century Franciscan friar in a north Italian abbey (where he had arrived – as Connery arrived everywhere regardless of place or era – by way of Edinburgh) didn’t exactly grab them.
Eventually, however, Annaud at least was won over and he couldn’t have made a smarter choice. Connery, bearded, tonsured and enveloped in a grubby woollen habit, isn’t a bit like James Bond. Actually, he’s more like Sherlock Holmes, a comparison made irresistible not only by what he does in the film but by the name of his character, William of Baskerville.
This, though, is not a hellhound of the Baskervilles but a sleuthhound doggedly (as it were) investigating a series of mysterious and nasty murders that have taken place in the abbey prior to an important conference between Benedictines and Franciscans.
In this he is aided by his novice Adso, played by a 15-year-old Christian Slater, whose main task is to ask his master the crucial questions and thus enable the audience to follow what’s going on. And what’s going on is even more labyrinthine than the secret library discovered at the top of the abbey, where a certain book might provide a vital clue to the murders.
(Incidentally, the most exciting thing that happens to Adso is that he’s seduced by and falls in love with a pretty peasant girl whose name he omits to ask, thus proving that blokes haven’t changed much since the 14th century.)
However, as the murders continue, Connery’s investigation is much hampered by the arrival of a Grand Inquisitor, F Murray Abraham, with whom he has previous and who not only has his own ideas about who dunnit but reckons he has a score to settle with his old adversary.
So suspects come and go and what suspects they are. To people the abbey, Annaud had rounded up a polyglot group of grotesques whom even Fellini might have envied. And that works, too.
I’ve no idea what the Middle Ages were like but the look of the dark, looming, gloomy abbey and its inhabitants, the grime and general air of discomfort make me believe they might have been just like that. You can almost smell the place and feel the cold.
This is not a great thriller, but the acting from Connery downwards is very good – well, Slater’s a bit bland but, hey, he was only 15, remember – and the atmosphere is so well evoked as to make it well worth watching.