‘Papillon’: Film Review | TIFF 2017

Not exactly a great escape.

Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek star in director Michael Noer’s remake of the 1973 Steve McQueen-Dustin Hoffmann prison epic, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Word of advice: If you're planning on watching the new remake of Papillon, try not to see the original first.

Because if you do, the experience is sort of like going out for dinner at Peter Luger and ordering the porterhouse, then following that up the next night with the T-bone at Denny’s. In both cases you're getting more or less the same cut of steak, but the comparisons stop there.

The 1973 Steve McQueen-Dustin Hoffman film was one of those hefty adult epics they don’t really make anymore. Directed by Franklin Schaffner, a specialist of big-scale storytelling in movies like Planet of the Apes and Patton, the original was long and brutal, filled with gritty set pieces, sparse dialogue and memorable scenes of men suffering in the faraway jungle. It plunged the viewer into the horrors of a French penal colony while leaving them with hope — of the possibility of escape, but even more so of the ability to create meaningful bonds under the worst conditions imaginable.

Danish director Michael Noer’s update, which stars Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek in the respective lead roles, tries to do all of the above but fails to achieve the same effect. Adapted from both the book by Henri Charriere and the screenplay by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr., it has many of the basic ingredients, yet seems to be going through the motions rather than creating something new. There’s no real voice in the storytelling, nothing distinctive about the imagery, if it’s not a doubling up on the violence and gore, and the result doesn’t remotely resonate in the same way.

Which isn’t to say that viewers seeing the 2017 Papillon first won’t have enough nasty prison ordeals to feast on, even if they’re unlikely to remember much about them. At times, Hunnam and Malek prove to be an entertaining duo and are definitely committed to their parts, with the former rolling around naked in lots of mud and blood to play the titular hero — a petty safecracker wrongly accused of murder and sentenced to a remote penitentiary in 1930s French Guiana — and the latter doing his very best Hoffman imitation to play the clever if scrawny expert forger Louis Dega.

The two meet while they’re being shipped off with hundreds of other men from a port city (seemingly Marseilles — the movie was shot in Malta, Montenegro and Serbia, and it shows) to serve their time on a godforsaken tip of South America. The conditions there are abominable — so much so that such colonies, known as the “bagne” in French, were outlawed by the end of World War II — and the prisoners who manage to survive the rough journey face death from disease or backbreaking labor, or by being murdered in their sleep.

Papillon, nicknamed for the butterfly tattoo on his chest, has no desire to remain stuck in that hellhole, and he quickly aligns with Dega — who has a considerable amount of money shoved up his rear end — to plot an escape. The task is far from simple, especially under the draconian watch of Warden Barrot (Yorick Van Wageningen), but the jailbirds wind up sticking together through thick and thin, and through swamps, seas and years of solitary confinement, to try and make their way to freedom.

Noer directed the memorable prison drama R, which was sort of like a Danish version A Prophet, and his visceral, handheld approach to the material pays off during the film’s rougher sequences, which include several maulings and stabbings, one instance of forced fellatio and a guillotine scene with extra servings of ketchup. But the few attempts that he and writer Aaron Guzikowski (Prisoners) make at differentiating their version wind up falling flat — especially a first reel devoted to Papillon’s criminal exploits that plays like a Europudding caricature of prewar Paris — while the rest of the movie lacks the necessary scope for this kind of grandiose tale.

At best, Hunnam and Malek showcase their intense physical dedication, while generating a few chuckles amid all the hardship. They don’t really have the allure of McQueen and Hoffmann onscreen — who ever could? — yet they’re an enjoyable combo in a movie that, despite a two-hour-plus running time, ultimately feels way more rushed than mastered (including a considerable amount of dubbing) and never recreates the harrowing experience of either the original or of the colonies in general. Perhaps it’s a question of time and money, because no one today can really shoot the way big guns like Schaffner once did. But it’s also something else: Unlike Papillon, who’s forever scheming to find a way out, what this film lacks is a plan.

Production companies: Czech Anglo Productions, FishCorb Films, Red Granite Pictures
Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Rami Malek, Roland Moller, Yorick Van Wageningen, Tommy Flanagan, Eve Hewson
Director: Michael Noer
Screenwriter: Aaron Guzikowski, based on the books
Papillon and Banco by Henri Charriere and the 1973 screenplay Papillon by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr.
Producers: Joey McFarland, David Koplan, Ram Bergman, Roger Corbi
Director of photography: Hagen Bogdanski
Production designer: Tom Meyer
Costume designer: Bojana Nikitovic
Editors: John Axelrad, Lee Haugen
Composer: David Buckley
Casting directors: Marisol Roncali, Mary Vernieu
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Sales: CAA

133 minutes

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