STUCK ON AN ISLAND FOR A TIME
Papillon remake much better than original movie
★★★ 1/2outof5 Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Rami Malek Director: Michael Noer Duration: 2h 13m
It’s a little too late into the careers of Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek to call this a breakout hit for either of them, but it does involve a breakout, and could very well be a hit.
The source material is the 1969 autobiographical novel by Henri (Papillon) Charrière, a French criminal who was sent to a penal colony in French Guiana in 1933.
He spent most of his time there trying inventive ways to escape — some of them even involving coconuts.
You may know the story from the 1973 film, which starred Steve McQueen in the title role and Dustin Hoffman as Louis Dega, a fellow prisoner who became Papillon’s best friend. I haven’t seen that version but was warned away from it by Roger Ebert, who wrote at the time: “You know something has gone wrong when you want the hero to escape simply so that the movie can be over.”
The new Papillon, directed by Denmark’s Michael Noer and adapted by Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband, Prisoners), feels for a time like it might not lift itself above this level of audience engagement, but the turning point comes about halfway through the film’s 133 minutes, when Papillon (Hunnam) has just weathered two years in solitary confinement, much of it on half-rations and in the dark.
Recuperating in the prison hospital, he is reunited with Louis (Malek), whom we understand tried to help smuggle extra rations to his friend. Louis, a bookish forger, sports a crack in the right lens of his glasses, but also a toughness Papillon hasn’t seen before.
When first they met on the prison ship that was transporting them to Guiana, Papillon offered protection in exchange for cash. But Louis has proven to be a scrappy survivor, as has Papillon in his own way. Asked how he avoided going bonkers in solitary, he is blunt:
“I just got used to the silence,” he says.
Noer is careful with the violence inherent in a story about prison life; the film is hardly bloodless, but the fluid usually seeps in from the corners of the screen as it were: dripping from a guillotine blade, for instance, or leaking from the body bag holding the victim’s corpse. A few powerful exceptions are scattered judiciously through the film, and shock us all the more for it.
Papillon is essentially a twohander for its stars, but there are some nicely underplayed supporting roles, including Roland Møller as a fellow prisoner, and Yorick van Wageningen, who manages the part of “sadistic warden” without slipping into caricature.
He delivers chilling speeches about how the prisoners are welcome to try to escape anytime they want and how, in the absence of rehabilitation, he’ll just be trying to break their spirits.
Welcome to jail, boys!
It’s enough to have us rooting for Papillon, and it doesn’t hurt that his conviction on murder was clearly a frame-up after the safecracker stole some loot from his boss.
Besides, Hunnam’s character may be a thief and an opportunist, but he still has a moral compass and is avowedly not a killer. He’d be a good guy to know on the inside, especially if you were looking to get out.
Rami Malek, Charlie Hunnam and Roland Møller star in the new remake of the 1973 movie Papillon.