I’ve never read either of the books written by Henri Charrière upon which Papillon is based, but I can tell you that the 1973 film is a perfect movie—a character study that also explores the physical and mental anguish of imprisonment endured by two men, each driven by very different survival factors. In that telling, the late Steve McQueen played Paris safecracker Charrière, who is framed for murder and sentenced to life on the Devil’s Island penal colony. On the journey there, he meets the squirrely counterfeiter Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman), who has access to money and agrees to finance Charrière’s escape in exchange for protection. This unlikely pairing endures a series of escape attempts, mind-altering stints in solitary confinement, and other forms of brutal treatment in prison.
While I’m curious why Danish filmmaker Michael Noer (Northwest) and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski decided to remake this film in the first place, it’s a story that is inherently fascinating and perhaps worth revisiting, since I’m guessing a lot of people have never seen the original. In this telling, the key roles are portrayed by two very capable actors, Charlie Hunnam (Pacific Rim) as Charrière (nicknamed Papillon) and Rami Malek (“Mr. Robot” and the upcoming Bohemian Rhapsody) as Dega. But outside of making a version that’s dirtier, slimier and all around grosser, the filmmakers haven’t changed a great deal of the story, which is both admirable and curious.
One of the elements I think Noer portrays beautifully and more disturbingly is Charrière’s time in solitary confinement, in which he spends a surprising amount of time. The result is unbearably claustrophobic and sometimes disturbing in the ways the warden denies Charrière basic decency in order to squeeze information out of him.
The escape attempts are the most tense and enjoyable sequences, especially since every time they make a break for it, something goes completely wrong and they have to scrap their plans for something more improvised. A sequence on a small boat that is slowly sinking almost as soon as it hits the water is particularly riveting, especially when it becomes clear that it would sink less quickly if they gave one of the four escaping prisoners the heave-ho.
I’m still not completely sold on Hunnam as a dynamic performer. He’s certainly a capable, utilitarian actor who can play just about anything and handle accents and personality traits as well as anyone with his job should. But nothing about him as an actor stood out in my mind until last year’s The Lost City of Z. He displayed a perfect combination of desperation and obsession in James Gray’s dramatic adventure story, and there’s some of that quality still in Papillon that shines a light across the film even when things are at their most bleak. Malek, on the other hand, plays Dega as just plain bizarre, and even if you find his performance too affected for its own good, you can’t take your eyes off of his persnickety persona. You may find yourself laughing at him occasionally, but you’ll never be bored by any of the choices Malek makes in his portrayal.
Even with the shortcomings of this version of the story, Papillon is just too engaging to get entirely wrong, especially with a team like this who clearly cares about capturing things both correctly and in a way that penetrates the soul. Some of the emotional beats fall short, but most of what’s here is impressive on multiple levels. If you’re a fan of watching gifted artists capture suffering on film, you’ve come to the right place.
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