Film Review: Papillon

Ambitious but emotionally hollow remake of the hit 1973 Steve McQueen/Dustin Hoffman starrer about the hellish ordeal of real-life Devil’s Island inmate and escapee Henri Charrière.
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Buttressed by the reputation of the original hit film, Papillon fully exploits the narrative potency of prison escape and salvation, a wise recipe for this era that has storytelling as its constant entertainment mantra. But Charlie Hunnam as Parisian safecracker Henri “Papillon” Charrière and Rami Malek as his pal-in-hell, counterfeiter Louis Dega, were sorely in need of richer characters written (or directed?) with more complexity, coloring, backstory, tics, or whatever might humanize them more.

Delivering the nitty-gritty awfulness of the incarceration, penal punishments and escape attempts depicted, the film should please action/adventure fans, especially younger ones, or attract fans of the original 1973 version. But length and other factors will weigh on a broader audience.

The story is comfortably in the prison-escape genre. As the source material dictates, Papillon kicks off “Babylon, Berlin”-style in a wild, partying, European mecca, here a naughty, nocturnal 1931 Paris of flashy nightclubs and pleasure-seeking patrons of the louche variety. Among these is slick Henri “Papillon” or “Papi” Charrière (Hunnam in the Steve McQueen role) and, in a brief role, his ooh-la-la squeeze Nenette (Eve Hewson), out for a night on the town.

The word “Papillon” is French for “butterfly,” denoting one of Papi’s tattoos, but there’s nothing dainty about him; he’s a criminal, a serial safecracker who lavishes some stolen diamond jewelry on Nenette that was meant for local thug Castili (Christopher Fairbank), who hired him.

When Castili learns he’s been cheated, he retaliates by getting Papi framed for a pimp’s murder. Landing a life sentence on a false charge, Papi is dispatched to the infamously brutal and harsh French penal colony in French Guiana (aka Devil’s Island) to serve his term.

On the crowded prison boat of angry, unsavory fellow prisoners also bound for the South American destination, Papi, determined from the get-go to escape this fate, bonds with Dega (Malek, in the Dustin Hoffman role), a diminutive, bespectacled convict. They forge a deal: In exchange for protection Papi will provide, Dega, with money hidden away, will somehow finance Papi’s prison escape once he has plans. (Where this money could be or how this will work isn’t clear.)

Once arrived in French Guiana, the conditions and mistreatment are immediately evident. Warden Barrot (Yorick van Wageningen), a mean bastard right out of central casting, barks orders and rules, most notably that any murder will warrant public executions (one grueling scene does have a head land in a bucket and Papi and Dega tasked with hauling away what remains of the body) and escape attempts will result in years of solitary confinement.

Conditions are relentlessly ugly and grim. The bullying guards are sadistic and prisoners must haul rocks in the hot sun and are given food that even the rats would send back. The entertainment program is no more than live beheadings. And on and on with such awfulness.

Papi and Dega both break some rules—whether hitting a guard, trying an escape or just eating a coconut and withholding the donor’s name. Consequently, Papi gets thrown into solitary. (At least here an intense Hunnam gets to flash his acting chops.)

A more elaborate scheme is planned when Dega learns that prison staff will be distracted by a movie show and guards can be sedated with spiked drinks. Papi brings two other prisoners—Celier (Roland Møller) and Maturette (Joel Basman)—into a scheme and in a blink of an eye the four men land in a small sailboat alone in the middle of a vast sea. There’s the inevitable infighting onboard, the boat filling with water, an impending storm that threatens. Another abrupt jump in action has Papi ending up on a sandy shore alone, bewildered and cared for by a nun. And the story continues, as does much narrative murk (Where are we? How did we get here? How much time has lapsed?).

From the early scenes on—and to some annoyance—Papillon bestows no nuances whatsoever (beyond the noisy opening Paris scene not shot in Paris) that story, character, culture, etc. are all wholly French. Worse, much of the dialogue has the jarring but all-too-familiar ring of tough-guy urban-American accents (New York especially). At least Malta and production-friendly Eastern Europe locations are convincing stand-ins for mainland and overseas France.

Papillon,in fact, is a thick Euro-pudding stew of many different nationalities: a Danish filmmaker (Michael Noer) directing two American leads and Scottish, Irish, Dutch and Swiss actors in supporting roles, all interpreting French source material on Eastern European and Maltese locations and captured by a German cinematographer.

But like Papi and Dega and Hunnam and Malik, Papillon does try hard.