★★★ / ★★★★
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.
★★ / ★★★★
Although not short on ambition, prison-break drama “Papillon,” based on the autobiography of Henri Charrière, suffers from pacing and tonal issues so severe that at times they take the enjoyment out of what should be thrilling and exhilarating moments. It requires patience to endure these miscalculations especially considering the fact that the film clocks in at about a hundred fifty minutes. An argument can be made that it is too long and bloated.
Perhaps most enjoyable is the performances. Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman play Henri and Louis, a safecracker framed for a murder of a pimp (or so he claims) and a counterfeiter, respectively, prisoners in the French penal colony of Devil’s Island. The power is not in the words they utter but the moments in between. They can look at one another, at the sky or the ocean, or at someone that they pity or are angry toward—and not much else is needed. This pair could have relied on their charm, physicality, or behavioral quirks. Instead, they choose to create convincing characters that we wish to make a successful escape not because it would be entertaining but rather we become convinced eventually that if they were to get a second chance at a free life, they would use it wisely.
I admired how the screenplay by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr. takes the time to show how it is like to be in this particular prison, especially solitary confinement. This is when the languid pacing is at its most effective because we see and feel the psychological toll the prisoner undergoes over time. We appreciate the size of the cell, the etchings on walls, what the previous man who lived in that cell was possibly thinking, the food served, or lack thereof, the bugs crawling across the floor, the classical conditioning based on the sound made by guards on the hallway. When the material provides a high level of specificity, it is fascinating. However, it reverts to becoming a prison break movie.
The act of making an escape should be suspenseful and thrilling. While I enjoyed there is no gadgetry, complex planning, and special effects are kept at a bare minimum, observe these scenes closely and recognize they come across somewhat slapstick at times. I considered the editing. Maybe it lingers a second or two too long after a guard is hit over the head that it leaves enough room for the overacting to come across as fake. I considered the rather uninteresting perspective of the camera, how it tends to observe from one angle and dares not budge even when the subjects are running for their lives. I even considered the lack of an exciting score that is designed to snap the viewers out of ennui. Maybe if the silly sound effects were masked a bit, it would have been more exciting and less amusing.
Perhaps all of these elements combined created the unintended byproduct.
“Papillon” is surprising in that it is not character-driven. Take a look at the relationship between Henri and Louis. While it is interesting that they are not quite friends, more like two people who need each other since what one lacks the other can offer, they are not that interesting when together or apart—especially when the script requires that they speak with one another about, for example, planning an escape or why one ought to partake in escaping. The lives of these two men divorced from the prison are described briefly, but these come across as decorations rather than convincing realities.