Dan's Review: Shaky source material shackles "Papillion"
Aug 25, 2018 01:25AM ● Published by Dan Metcalf
Rami Malek Charlie and Hunnam in Papillon - © 2018 Bleeker Street.
Papillion (Bleeker Street)
Rated R for violence including bloody images, language, nudity, and some sexual material.
Starring Charlie Hunnam, Rami Malek, Roland Møller, Tommy Flanagan, Eve Hewson, Michael Socha, Ian Beattie, Yorick van Wageningen, Nikola Kent, Petar Cirica, Joel Basman).
Written by Aaron Guzikowski, based on “Papillon” and “Banco” by Henri Charrière and the 1973 screenplay by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr.
Directed by Michael Noer.
Here’s a thought: If your film is based on three different sources, one of which is questionable in its authenticity, you may have spread your chances of success and acclaim a little too thin. That’s the best way I can describe the origins of Papillion, a modern reworking of the 1973 film starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, which was based on the “autobiographical” books of Henri Charrière, a man who apparently escaped a penal colony in French Guiana back in the 1940s.
Charlie Hunnam plays Charrière, (A.K.A. “Papillion” due to the butterfly tattoo on his chest) a French thief and safecracker sentenced to the penal colony after being framed for murder in Paris. During the ship ride to the colony, Charrière becomes acquainted with Louis Dega (Rami Malek) a wealthy forger. “Papi” strikes a deal with Louis, offering protection in exchange for money needed to plot and execute an escape. Prison life is excruciating and harsh, with several bad encounters with other nasty convicts and equally brutal guards. The prison warden (Yorick van Wageningen) makes life especially hard for those who dare attempt escape; first by extension of their sentence and death by guillotine for repeat offenders and convicts who kill guards. After several failed attempts, Papi and Louis recruit Celier (Roland Møller) a former sailor and another prisoner named Maturette (Joel Basman) to pull off one last scheme to escape via a small boat. Three of them shipwreck on the Colombian mainland, but they are eventually captured and sent to “Devil’s Island,” the worst part of the colony system, where they are left to their own madness and no hope of ever returning home. The island is basically a rock with high cliffs in the middle of nowhere. As Papi contemplates his final escape attempt, Louis has his doubts about ever being able to return to society.
Papillion’s hodgepodge of source material is only one of the few qualms I have about the movie. While the historical accuracy was already in doubt for the 1973 version, the new installment sets its foundation on the McQueen/Hoffman narrative, a tale of two prisoner buddies devoted to each other and dependent on their relationship to survive the harsh realities of prison life. Sure, it makes for fine melodrama, but it never happened. On closer examination, Charrière’s actual history paints him as more of a killer, a braggart, a plagiarist and an opportunist than a hero for prison reform. So, if you can get past the B.S. part of the movie, yes, it makes for a fine story.
The best parts of Papillion are Hunnam and Malek’s performance and chemistry, along with a deep and tragic examination of prison life in the mid-20th Century. Even with its R-rating, Papillion seems to hold back on some of those visceral moments, especially considering the 75 percent death rate of all prisoners who had the misfortune of being sentenced to the penal colony. If you’re squeamish about such things, perhaps Papillion’s watered-down version of events is just fine. Considering all the shortcuts through history taken by Papillion, I suppose such misgivings are the rule, rather than the exception. It should be noted that (like the 1973 film), there is no pretense of phony French accents among the main cast. All their dialogue is American English complete with all the cursing you’d get on any Brooklyn street corner.
The bigger elephant in the room is the 1973 film, which is considered a classic in many circles. The new Papillion feels more like a remake than a re-imagining and will more than likely go down in cinematic history is its weaker stepchild.