Crime Drama

Review: ‘Papillon’ is a Vital and Compelling Remake of a Classic

August 24, 2018Ferdosa Abdi

The story of Papillon — that of the brave and bold prison escape that took place at the French penal Colony of French Guiana between 1931 and 1945 — has been dubbed the greatest adventure story of all time, and the tale certainly warrants such a superlative. Its authenticity has been debated for decades, and Henri Charrière, the subject and author, stood firm until his death in 1973, the same year that Franklin J. Schaffner's Papillon, starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, was released. But whether it is accurate or an imagined reality from Henri, his story has found a life of its own, this time starring Charlie Hunnam as Charrière a.k.a Papillon and Rami Malek as Louis Dega.

In director Michael Noer's simple, poignant and beautifully shot interpretation of the great prison escape, Papillon is a lowly safe cracker living in Paris who has some ambitions to expand his operations and make a name for himself. However, he crosses the wrong people and is unjustly accused of committing a murder. Sentenced to a life of hard labor at the French Guiana penal colony of Devil's Island in South America, Papillon, begins to formulate an escape and meets Dega, who has been convicted of fraud and happens to be very wealthy. Papillon engages Dega and forges a partnership, whereby through their shared traumatic experience, a beautiful friendship and love develops.

Aaron Guzikowski's script, for the most part, is more faithful to the 1973 film than the written account by Charrière. However, what differentiates the 1973 version from Noer's take is the benefit of modern filmmaking technology, which Noer takes advantage of to capture the stunning story with fresh new intensity. Despite the horrors that take place within the prison, there is no doubt that Papillon and Dega have been transported to one the most beautiful places in the world. The sky, the sea, the jungle, all will take your breath away, and also leave a pit in your stomach as you realize that such a beautiful place is home to a traumatizing and inhumane prison. Noer contrasts the stunning scenery with the grimness of this prison colony, where the prisoners' white garb are caked and soaked with mud, blood and feces.

With his impressive filmmaking skills, Noer is able to capture the utter lack of humanity on Devil's Island, which is at the center of this beautiful landscape. He creates an atmosphere that most certainly warrants a great escape, and without knowing very much about Papillon or Dega you immediately root for them to escape from this hell on earth and hope they reap the rewards of the paradise that surrounds them. Noer's approach to the story is obviously meant to showcase this daring and courageous hero attempting to defy the odds, as well as to shine a spotlight on the unlikely friendship and love between Papillon and Dega. However, he also devotes notable attention to illustrating the prison conditions on this French Colony, which draws obvious parallels to what we can expect most modern prison systems to resemble. And although the movie's prison conditions are dramatically more inhumane and savage, Noer is able to capture the relevance of this story as it relates to our time.

Malek gives a fine performance as the rigid yet vulnerable Dega, who serves as the perfect foil to the cool and confident Papillon. The two are evenly matched to convey the raw and honest nature of a deep friendship and love from two radically different people in the midst of a traumatizing experience. However, the film stands on the shoulders of Hunnam's performance, who excellently conveys Papillon's inner turmoil and desperation, as well as the existential change within the character. It is in the movie's quieter moments that Hunnam's subtle and still performance shines through, doing wonders to ground the film in a recognizable reality and proving that he is one of the finest actors working today.

That said, there is not much time spent with Papillon prior to his arrest, which proves to be a significant flaw later on when he is confronted with coming to terms with who he is and the life he has lived up to this point. We get the sense that Papillon is a carefree spirit who is living the high life in Paris. However, the story hinges upon his reformation by ways of extreme depravity and savagery on Devil's Island, and we aren't given a deeper understanding of what kind of man he was before. After one botched escape attempt, Papillon is forced into solitary confinement for a number of years, and whilst alone in a cell he is evaluates his life and realizes he has to change. It is during this sequence that we come to the realization that Papillon's physical imprisonment is the means by which the character escapes who he was before.

The result is thrilling and captivating from the very first frame, serving both as a condemnation of the prison system and a heart-pounding escape story. Both saddening and enjoyable and bolstered by brilliant performances from Hunnam and Malek, not to mention the unwavering confidence of Noer, Papillon proves to be a vital and compelling remake of the 1973 classic.

Papillon releases August 24th, 2018 from Elevation Pictures. The film has an MPAA rating of R for violence including bloody images, language, nudity, and some sexual material. Its runtime is 2 hrs. 13 min.

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