Warning: This article discusses key plot points of Inferno. If you haven't seen the film yet, stop reading.
In a Dan Brown novel, the twists are just part of the formula: Da Vinci was actually … part of a centuries-old conspiracy! The Vatican is … threatened by an antimatter bomb! Dante’s writing … holds clues to the location of a bioweapon! Also part of that formula? The presence of a spunky brunette partner for Brown's hero, brilliant symbologist Robert Langdon. These women aren’t love interests, exactly — Langdon only sleeps with one of them, in Angels & Demons, and even then only in the book — but they're still mostly around to satisfy the common masculine fantasy of a beautiful woman who’s happy to follow you around Europe without complaining, and listen attentively to your lectures on the Western canon.
In the first two Langdon films, this spot was filled by Audrey Tautou and Ayelet Zurer, and judging by the poster for Inferno, you would be forgiven for expecting new co-star Felicity Jones to play the same basic role in Tom Hanks's third outing. For the first two-thirds of the film, that holds true — until, in a stunning twist, Jones’s character reveals that she isn't Hanks’s sidekick at all. She’s the villain.
Yes, it turns out Felicity Jones’s Sienna was only using Langdon to help her get to the bioweapon they've been chasing ... because she was in love with evil genius Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster) all along! The first two-thirds of the movie were a setup: Sienna had Langdon act out a typical Dan Brown mystery, so she had to play the typical Dan Brown sidekick. The twist is the best thing about the movie, which is not very good. The reveal gives Felicity Jones a whole lot more to do, and also helps make room for the film’s other surprise: a much more age-appropriate love story between Hanks and Sidse Babett Knudsen, who plays an operative for the World Health Organization, which in the world of Inferno has the resources to chase criminals across Europe.
Knudsen's character was dating Langdon at some indeterminate point in the past, but the pair split apart for career reasons: She got a job in Geneva, while he stayed at Cambridge. Inferno isn’t a particularly coherent movie, but the scenes between Hanks and Knudsen (who led the great Danish TV drama Borgen and now spends her time mumbling in a pantsuit on Westworld) are the closest it gets to subtlety. When the two of them share the screen, the movie changes from office-hours fantasy to something more mordant, and a little sad. These are two old friends who know better than to think they’re going to get together at the end. And, of course, they don’t.
If you know Tom Hanks, this love story isn’t all that surprising. Where his peers prefer love interests in their 20s and 30s, Hanks is the rare A-lister whose onscreen partners have aged with him. (In fact, the 47-year-old Knudsen is 13 years younger than Hanks, a larger-than-usual gap for him.) Liam Neeson, George Clooney, or Tom Cruise might get the girl at the end of their films, but the more respectable Hanks gets a more respectable plot. In movies like Sully, Hanks has started to carve out a path as a wise, reluctant Baby Boomer hero, and Inferno continues that narrative: The movie's millennials, Jones and Foster, die for the sake of love, idealism, and harebrained disruption schemes; Hanks and Knudsen, the people old enough to compromise, win. At the end of the movie, they're still just muddling on, wrapped in their emergency blankets, laughing about Dante.
This isn’t to say that Inferno is particularly self-aware — it isn’t — or even especially innovative, but with this love story, it's stumbled upon a way to improve the standard aging-male action movie. A good next step: an action vehicle for Sidse Babett Knudsen herself. Just call it WHO's Got Your Back.