Papillon escapes a gritty chrysalis with little flutter

Movie review: Papillon

Charlie Hunnam looks a little like the late Steve McQueen, which makes comparisons to the 1973 Frank Schaffner classic harder to ignore, and Hunnam’s task all the more challenging as he’s forced to escape an island of fortified expectations.

Papillon

3/5

Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Rami Malek, Eve Hewson, Roland Møller, Yorick van Wageningen, Tommy Flanagan

Directed by: Michael Noer

Running time: 2 hrs 13 mins

Rating: Restricted

By Katherine Monk

“How do I look?” Say the words and you can see Steve McQueen’s face, craggy, covered in grey stubble, poking through the small window in an iron door. Desperation juxtaposed with empty civility, he’s the image of incarcerated man, debased and broken but clinging to a shadow of hope.

It’s an image you can’t forget, which is why producer Joey McFarland was walking into risky territory by bringing a new Papillon to the screen. Every other scene in Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1973 adaptation of Henri Charriere’s 1969 bestseller is already iconic. From the haircutting and cockroach-eating, to the great leap off a cliff that McQueen insisted on doing himself, to the Dalton Trumbo script, everything in the first Papillon worked. No redo was required.

Every other scene in Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1973 adaptation of Henri Charriere’s 1969 bestseller is already iconic. From the haircutting and cockroach-eating, to the great leap off a cliff that McQueen insisted on doing himself, to the Dalton Trumbo script, everything in the first Papillon worked. No redo was required.

Yet, McFarland felt the subject of incarceration and the systematic dehumanization that it produces was rife for rediscovery. Forget the fact this story takes place between 1931 and 1945. McFarland (Wolf of Wall Street) felt a prison story would resonate with a millennial audience, so he went back to the source material, Charriere’s bestselling memoir Papillon, as well as the sequel, Banco, which explores his time after his escape.

The result is a grittier, gorier take on what we already know, plus a few more details that take us closer to the biographical facts. Where Trumbo and the other screenwriters (including, at one point, William Goldman) used dramatic licence to make for a better movie, this film sacrifices pacing and arcs to weave a broader tapestry — instead of a tight individual narrative with a charismatic hero carrying every scene.

Everything here feels a little murky, which is how Danish filmmaker Michael Noer clearly wanted it. The director known for the prison drama R doesn’t mind getting dirty, and he brings a certain sadistic flourish to the nitty-gritty.

Things look darker, the palette is muted and the horrors become an ambient track in this trance dance of death. The drama, however, feels a lot lighter. Not in terms of tone, but in substance.

Things look darker, the palette is muted and the horrors become an ambient track in this trance dance of death. The drama, however, feels a lot lighter. Not in terms of tone, but in substance.

Perhaps because the design is a little more ambitious, we aren’t as close to Papillon — the central character sentenced to a penal colony in French Guiana. Played here by a latter day McQueen in Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy, King Arthur), we first see the shadow of Papillon through the iconic little window in the iron door. Knowing we’d be anticipating the “How do I look?” moment, Noer and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski take us there first, then roll back the hands of time.

It’s 1931 in Paris and Papillon pulls off a jewel heist by cracking a safe. Shortly afterward, he’s framed for a murder, and convicted. We watch the long march of the prisoners to the dock, where he first encounters Dega (Rami Malek), a forger with money stashed in his “prison wallet.”

They make a pact: Papillon will find a way to escape, Dega will pay for it, in exchange for full protection from the other inmates.

Papillon lives up to his word, and so does Dega, despite the risk to both. It’s the stuff prison bromances are made of, and it’s another part of the movie that pales in comparison to the original because McQueen and co-star Dustin Hoffman had a kind of physical chemistry. They found the element that defined the other and reflected it back, allowing both their characters to entwine — and become a little more like the other. Hunnam and Malek don’t find the same fit, and the script starves them of significant moments.

It’s the stuff prison bromances are made of, and it’s another part of the movie that pales in comparison to the original because McQueen and co-star Dustin Hoffman had a kind of physical chemistry.

It may all add up to a movie that’s closer to the truth, but fails to find the same energy or emotion, despite the charisma of the cast and the earnestness of the endeavour.

@katherinemonk

THE EX-PRESS, August 24, 2018

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Review: Papillon

User Rating

3 (6 Votes)

Summary

3 Score

Charlie Hunnam looks a little like the late Steve McQueen, which makes comparisons to the 1973 Frank Schaffner classic harder to ignore, and Hunnam’s task all the more challenging as he’s forced to escape an island of fortified expectations. The movie may be closer to truth, but lacks the same intimacy between characters as a result of its broader ambitions. -- Katherine Monk

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