★★★ / ★★★★
The remake of Franklin J. Schaffner’s “Papillon,” based on the memoir by Henri Charrière, this time directed by Michael Noer, improves upon the original by streamlining the 1973 version’s distracting tonal issues and uneven pacing. However, it comes with a cost: By comparison, the retelling of what happened within the penal system in 1933 French Guiana is less brutal because the filmmakers choose to embrace a more cinematic approach. This is not a complete disadvantage because these two films actually make an interesting double feature due to their stark differences. A case can be made that although neither picture is an exemplary prison break drama, they complete each other.
Two strong performers lead the story—Charlie Hunnam who plays the safecracker Papillon and Rami Malek as the forger Louis Dega. Their approach to the characters, like the original and the remake, are vastly different. But because the two of them often share the same screen, and both are equally charismatic, one cannot help but consider which of the duo is stronger. In my eyes, it is Hunnam simply because he opts not to mimic Steve McQueen’s interpretation of Papillon. By doing so, and perhaps recognizing that McQueen is inimitable, he makes the character his own. On the other hand, Malek does an impression of Dustin Hoffman’s Dega, from the speech patterns to the way he looks at or through the camera. It is the performance that is more forced.
There is a lived in quality in way the penal colony is photographed. In every place shown, from the open spaces that gives an impression of false freedom down to the suffocating room of solitary confinement, it looks and feels as though somebody has lived and died in there. Like the original, the remake’s strongest moments involve the central protagonist being broken in body, mind, spirit by the warden (Yorick van Wageningen) who is, ironically, often dressed in white. These sequences of near silence demand that the viewer pay attention to the passing of time. For instance, this can be observed through the sheer deterioration of Papillon’s once extremely fit body.
It is curious that neither film manages to capture the essence of Papillon and Dega’s friendship in a way that is completely rewarding or convincing. To me, their bond remains fragile and tenuous throughout. The closing moments, bordering on melodrama at times, suggest otherwise.
Looking at the story and character development more closely, perhaps we are not meant to equate their partnership as friendship—at least not on a traditional sense. This is the more compelling route because life is like that sometimes. There are instances when we are required to work with someone, perhaps even get close to them at the time, to complete a project. But once the assignment is over, life goes on not because it is cruel but simply because it must. It does not make the connection any less special.
It took seeing both versions of the same story for me to appreciate this particular angle. And that is why, in this review, I found it nearly impossible to avoid bringing up the original. Certainly more polished, this modernized “Papillon” is easier on the eyes and there is a more mainstream flow to it. It does not feel as long, and it is able to stand as a complete work. An argument can be made that a prison break movie need not be realistic, even if it is based on a true story, so long as it is entertaining. Well, it certainly fulfills this prerequisite.