- Directed by: Michael Noer
- Written by: Aaron Guzikowski
- Starring: Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek
- Classification: 14A; 133 minutes
The remake of Papillon ends with archival footage of convicts entering the penal colony in French Guiana – as though an audience might need proof such a place existed. That abusive penitentiary system is a matter of historical fact; instead, the skeptical viewer might want some evidence that the remarkable Papillon, the convict nicknamed for his butterfly tattoo, was a real person.
French journalists have debunked much of Papillon, Henri Charrière’s bestselling 1969 autobiography recounting his numerous attempts to escape and his final flight from Devil’s Island. The consensus seems to be that Charrière was incarcerated in French Guiana (but not on Devil’s Island) and did escape, but that the escapades in his memoir were stitched together from jailhouse apocrypha. (The book is now sometimes referred to as a novel.) Certainly, Papillon was a consummate storyteller: both this remake, and the original 1973 film starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, profitably exploit tales of grand adventure.
The new film, which sentences Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek to a notably more gory version of penal servitude, is visually richer and narratively tighter than the original, more impressive in some places, less in others. Neither Papillon is a cinematic masterpiece – only nostalgia would canonize the 1973 version as a classic – but as director Michael Noer struggles to tease a theme out of a string of exploits, Papillon remains as entertaining as ever.
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The plot of Papillon is episodic and, for all its improbability, repetitious. A safe-cracker framed for murder, Papillon is transported to French Guiana, where he continually attempts to escape, each time drawing stiffer punishments from the authorities. (The film takes a fraction of the events in the book and, as screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski adapts the 1973 script by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple, he trims yet more.)
What distinguishes the story from its episodes – and yet also proves to be the film’s undoing – is the relationship between the indomitable Papillon and the delicate forger Louis Dega, a refined criminal specialist ill-equipped to deal with the brutality of both guards and inmates. Under Noer’s direction, the humanity of that relationship is intended to rise above the barbaric conditions to provide something more high-minded than a mere narrative line through the many scenes of suffering, fighting and fleeing.
Hunnam and Malek’s work on the two roles is decidedly warmer than their predecessors’. In place of McQueen’s machismo, the British actor produces a mischievous rebel of easy confidence. It is Papillon’s daring that has got him framed in the first place, as he withholds swag from a crime boss, and the cheerful Hunnam bobs back up from the terrors of solitary confinement like a whack-a-mole.
(By the way, the scenes of silent solitary, during which Papillon steadfastly refuses to betray Dega for bribing a guard to smuggle him a daily coconut, are among both Hunnam and Noer’s strongest as the camera details the prison walls with the same probing stasis as it does Humman’s skin.)
But mainly, Papillon’s persona is simplistically heroic and Hunnam plays him like any action figure whose only motivation is to move forward. It is Malek, replacing Hoffman’s eccentric nerd with a fragile artist compelled to draw on any available surface, who creates the more intriguing character in Dega, his large but narrow intelligence squinting at the unfamiliar brutality around him.
Papillon becomes his protector, initially just to get payment from the purse that Dega hid up his anus. (Noer’s film happily disregards the logistics of survival without food and water in the jungle or at sea, but it does offer gruesome instructions on how you hide banknotes in body cavities – and how you might steal such a cache from someone else.) Now bound together, the two men gradually replace mutual suspicion with respect and their friendship grows; Noer pointedly insists this is not a homoerotic attraction but ultimately Papillon is ready to take almost any punishment to save Dega.
Why does he do it? The directorial concept here is a strong one: that by stressing the violence of the setting, Papillon and Dega’s care for each other will emerge as a celebration of humanity in adversity. But the mechanics of the friendship remain opaque and Dega’s heroism improbable; Noer’s ending is saddled with the same sentimentality as that of the original film. Finally, the new Papillon can’t craft something complex enough to elevate the franchise above its real attraction as a highly successful potboiler.