Safecracker Henri “Papillon” Charriere (Charlie Hunnam) is framed and convicted for the murder of a Parisian pimp. He is sentenced to life at hard labor and shipped to the infamous penal colony of Devil’s Island off the coast of French Guiana. From the very beginning, when found guilty, he plans to escape to freedom, no matter what the risk, in “Papillon.”
When the shipload of new prisoners arrive at their new “home,” Warden Barrot (Yorick van Wageningen) tells them, “Feel free to try to escape.” Then he lays down the punishment. The first escape attempt earns two years in solitary confinement. The second garners five years and murder gets the guillotine.
Early on, Papillon meets Louis Degas (Rami Malek), a high-class forger who bilked millions in fake bonds, convicted and sent to the Island. Word is out that Louis has hidden money and, after proving his worth, Papi makes a deal: if Louis finances his escape, he will protect him from those who want Louis’s stash of cash. This is the beginning of a beautiful partnership and friendship.
I have to say, I loved the 1973 adaptation of Charriere’s autobiographic “novel” – which I read back in the day – by director Franklin J Schaffner and starring Steve McQueen as the hero, Papillon, and Dustin Hoffman as the vulnerable Louis Degas. That film has stayed with me, and viewed many times since its release decades ago, so I was skeptical about a remake.
That said, I have been doing this for so long I can leave my opinions behind (usually) and try to critique a film, even a remake, on its own merits. Director Michael Noer and scripter Aaron Guzikowski take the source book and 1973 script (by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr.) and craft the story and its characters to make the story their own.
We meet Henri following a heist where he stole a cache of diamonds for his gangster boss. He takes the liberty of giving an expensive necklace from the robbery to his girlfriend, Nenette (Eve Hewson). His disloyalty earned him the frame-up by the corrupt courts and a life at hard labor in one of the most forbidding places on earth. This up front depiction of what led Henri to his current predicament helps to humanize the character and allow Hunnam to give him dimension.
While Charlie Hunnam gives a first rate performance (and, through camera angles and light, occasionally brings out McQueen from the original), Rami Malek is remarkable as Louis Degas. He does not try to recreate Dustin Hoffman’s Louis but makes the character his own with the vulnerability, intellect and, in the end, loyalty and friendship.
The filmmakers give a straightforward telling of Charriere’s epic adventure and capture the heart and soul of his story of innocence and fight for freedom. The harrowing life Henri and the inmates of the horrific prison must endure to survive their confinement is shown with effective impact, both visually and viscerally.
Going in, I had my doubts about this remake of a favorite classic. But the filmmakers, cast and crew do a solid job in telling a well-crafted true-life tale of one man’s quest for freedom. I give it a B+.
In 1930's Paris, Henri Charrière (Charlie Hunnam) was a talented safecracker, but he was framed for the murder of a pimp and sent to France's infamous penal colony in French Guiana. His sole focus was escape and he offered a protection pact to forger Louis Dega (Rami Malek), marked for the rumored cash he carried. Charrière would escape twice, spend a two year, then five year stint in solitary, and ultimately escape Devil's Island by floating off on a bag of coconuts. He named his autobiography after the tattoo on his chest which gave him his nickname, "Papillon."
Why remake a well received 1973 movie starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman? Danish director Michael Noer's film has had a target on its back from film buffs crying sacrilege, but movie goers who give this one a chance will more than likely be pleasantly surprised. Aaron Guzikowski's ("Prisoners") adaptation of Charrière's book and the 1973 film's screenplay hews closer to Charrière's story, dispensing with events concocted for the prior film, and Hunnam and Malek forge their own paths, Malek doing some fascinating mime work for a Papillon hallucination.
To be fair, Charrière, whose murder conviction was pardoned in his home country after his book was published, has been accused of largely making up his story (even he has said it is about 75% true), another man with a butterfly tattoo claiming to have been its inspiration. There are no records of Charrière being imprisoned on Devil's Island, nor is the island's topography as depicted in both films. But the film may still stand as an expose of the dehumanizing conditions many prisoners faced, as an adventurous survival tale and as a story of mutual dependency blossoming into deep friendship.
Noer opens with a startling image from much later in his film, that of a gaunt, bearded Hunnam slowly thrusting his head out of a waist high opening in a steel prison door (it will later be revealed as haircutting day for those in solitary). The handsome Papillon and his beautiful girlfriend's revelry in Parisian streets is swiftly cut short, a stark contrast to what will follow. The brutality that these men will face is established quickly as Dega, who initially spurns Papillon's offer, witnesses the man sleeping next to him disemboweled for hidden assets. Warden Barrot's (Yorick van Wageningen) greeting is a litany of strictly enforced rules and the escalating punishments meted out for not following them. If the prison guards don't get you, the terrain almost certainly will.
As Papillon barters for his freedom, Dega struggles with his stash, a bout of diarrhea almost wiping it out completely. His first attempt fails, but after some time in solitary a surprise appears in his bucket of water - a coconut and a note that one will appear daily. But when this luxury is eventually discovered, Papillon refuses to name his benefactor despite painful visits from the increasingly frustrated warden. It is his second offense that almost breaks him. As if five years in solitary isn't bad enough (it is almost unheard of to survive it), the warden takes away his light. Plunged into darkness, Papillon's mind compensates. The warden is astounded when the man is still alive, dragged over to the hospital at the end of his sentence. Louis, who has worked his way into the warden's office, visits and learns his friend's secret - he's only feigning madness - and it is almost comical how immediately the two fall into plotting. Noer's choreographing of the next, more elaborate breakout is intense, one obstacle after another almost tripping the men up as "King Kong" plays in an open courtyard for the warden and his guests. The duplicitousness of the Navyman Celier (Roland Møller) who Papi's brought on board seen first when he suggests leaving Louis behind becomes even more serious at sea, Celier suggesting they dump their young fourth (Joel Bassman) overboard to keep their boat from swamping.
Hunnam is impressive as the focused Frenchman even if the ghost of McQueen often hovers just behind him. Malek provides a counterpoint to Hoffman's mannered Dega, his physical weakness as a prisoner rendered graceful in Papi's hallucinatory mind's eye. While the 1973 version had grand themes on endurance of the human spirit, Noer presents a grittier, more violent take, wrapping with a 1969 set coda and archival photos. It is the non-Hollywood, less glossy version of Charrière's story and it packs its own kind of punch.
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