Movie Review: ‘Papillon’ – A well-made but shallow prison break flick

Movie Review: ‘Papillon’ – A well-made but shallow prison break flick

From left, Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek in a scene from ‘Papillon’. Photo courtesy of Bleeker Street

By Kyle Barr

Here’s a question when it comes to remakes: Should a film stand on its own two feet or should we as an audience come down harder on its mistakes than we would an original film?

“Papillon,” the 1973 movie directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, is based on Henri Charrière’s autobiography of the same name. I’ve never read the book, and I’ve never seen the original movie. Hell, it might be a great movie, but too often people would rather compare films to each other than consider them on their own merits.

A film is a film before it is a remake, and it should be taken as such. If so, then there is a problem when a remake such as “Papillon” is missing key pieces of character motivation that makes one wonder if it was assumed from the original movie.

“Papillon” starts in early 1930s France, as the titular Papillon (Charlie Hunnam), a safecracker working for the local mob, gets framed for a murder he didn’t commit by a local mob boss for whom he worked. He is sentenced to life in prison at Devil’s Island in French Guiana, a place known for its abject brutality and harsh conditions. Anyone sentenced to Devil’s Island is exiled, never able to return to France. On the way there Papillon meets Louis Dega (Rami Malek), a convicted counterfeiter to whom he offers protection in exchange for money, all the while thinking of escape.

Though Papillon and Dega initially dislike each other, it is their commitment to their friendship that drives the plot of the movie, and both actors play across each other very well. This friendship is despite attempts by Warden Barrot (Yorick van Wageningen) to break Papillon’s spirit through a long stay in solitary.

Director Michael Noer does a pretty good job at really setting the tone of the film. Everything at the prison colony is dirty, bloody and hard. Every actor involved is well tuned to his role. Malek does well as a stoic man seemingly numb to other people’s problems, that is until he starts to form a bond with Papillon. 

Hunnam has never really had a problem falling into character, and here he plays the hard-bitten man with a heart of gold as well as he has for nearly every film and show since “Sons of Anarchy.”

Yet there is a clear lifelessness to the whole affair. We start the film in France, end up in French Guiana, and yet we never hear a single person try to affect even an attempt at a French accent. It takes the occasional sight of the tricolor French flag to remind us that, yes, these people are French, with French guards and French prisoners. It’s enough to question whether Hollywood still thinks Americans will laugh at anything French as if every line is a nasal-sounding comic’s routine. 

What’s worse is Papillon, the character, never makes you care enough about his plight. He is a rough man, willing to beat any man into roadkill just to get enough money to escape, but he stops just short of killing anybody. It seems the film is trying to tell us that is something to admire. He spends enough time in solitary confinement and suffers so that we may admire him in a Christ-like sort of way, but much like the real prison system, it seems we are supposed to root for someone’s morality just because they will do anything to attain some form of “justice” just short of the original sin. 

Perhaps it would be different if I saw the original film; then perhaps I would understand what character Papillon is trying to be. Perhaps in that film they comment about his violent nature, but there’s not enough here for any kind of real understanding.

The movie is good enough, but it’s still sad to see so much effort go into the set and costume design as well as the character’s portrayals only to see it wasted on what Hollywood must be thinking is just another remake.

Rated R for language, violence, nudity and some sexual material,“Papillon” is now playing in local theaters.

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