Updated: Feb 7, 2020
In 1931, safecracker Henri “Papillon” Charrière was wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to life in a penal colony on French Guiana. There, he made an arrangement with wealthy forger Louis Dega: he will protect Dega and, in exchange, Dega will finance Papillon’s escape. Papillon wrote about his horrifying experiences as a prisoner in the 1969 memoir “Papillon.” His story was then adapted into the 1973 film Papillon, starring Steve McQueen as Papillon and Dustin Hoffman as Dega. That was decent, if overlong, with solid performances and a good sense of time and place. For some reason, forty-five years later, it has been deemed ripe to be retold. So now we get the new Papillon starring Charlie Hunnam as the title character and Rami Malek as Dega. It is also a decent, if overlong, production with solid performances.
In addition to being based on Charrière’s book, this Papillon is also based on the screenplay for the 1973 version. Therefore, content-wise, they are very, very similar. There are two major differences. One is that the remake, at 126 minutes (without the end credits) is about 25 minutes shorter. The other is that this film is much bloodier. While the McQueen picture paid more attention to the escape attempts, this one concentrates more on relating the torture Papillon and the other prisoners suffered. I felt like I was watching the same movie, just updated for today’s sensibilities. It really makes me wonder why they chose to go back to it.
Obviously, it would be difficult for any contemporary production to match the star power of Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, and this one certainly does not. That said, it is not a big step down in terms of talent. Charlie Hunnam, in particular, is very good as Papillon. He does not have the intense charisma of McQueen, but he is better at projecting his inner torment. He is especially effective in the scenes where his character must be silent.
Rami Malek, a skilled actor, is unable to do as much with his underwritten role as Hoffman was. He does the best he can but, due mainly to the filmmakers’ focus on Papillon’s punishment, Dega mostly comes off as a plot device or this story’s version of a damsel in distress. While the two leads were equally compelling in the original, here it is predominantly Hunnam’s show.
As far as the supporting cast goes, there is some fine stuff with Roland Møller and Joel Basman as fellow prisoners and Yorick van Wageningen as the compassionless warden. But director Michael Noer is less interested in them as people and more interested in the brutality they were forced to endure. There are a couple of haunting sequences involving Papillon’s solitary confinement and portions of the escape attempts are exciting, however it all becomes pretty repetitive by the end. With both films, I got the point, yet the filmmakers would not stop making it. That seriously dulls the impact of the story.
Though I enjoyed it in parts, I did not understand the purpose of the 2018 Papillon. It is not a bad movie, it just feels crushingly redundant. Despite the addition of a small prologue and epilogue, we still do not get to know him as a person. He is a symbol. But of what? While the first film is far from a classic, at least it had a point. Michael Noer’s Papillon is well-made, with a really strong lead performance. I can recommend it based on that. But, watching it, I never got the sense it needed to be made.
3 out of 5
Charlie Hunnam as Henri “Papillon” Charrière
Rami Malek as Louis Dega
Roland Møller as Celier
Joel Basman as Maturette
Yorick van Wageningen as Warden Barrot
Directed by Michael Noer
Screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski