Basically, what we’ve got in Papillon is a guy who looks a lot like Steve McQueen hanging out with a guy who looks a lot like Dustin Hoffman, in between getting beaten, thrown into solitary confinement and tortured.
This is a remake of the original 1973 Papillon, starring McQueen and Hoffman – and the thing to wonder is, did the old one feel like the new one does? You know, like you’re in prison, too, and you can’t get out, either?
Perhaps the novelty and topicality of the original film made it easier to take or just more interesting the first time around.
Both Papillon screen adaptations are based on the memoirs of Henri “Papillon” Charriere, which were published in 1970 and which detailed the cruelty of the French penal system in the first decades of the 20th century.
Charriere, innocent of the crime for which he was convicted, was given a life sentence in 1933 and subjected to punishments that should have killed him. That he not only survived but thrived is close to a miracle and a testimony to human will and the desire to be free.
It’s easy enough to think of the story in this way, and appreciate it for its humane values, and even imagine how it might be interesting to spend an hour or so flipping through Charriere’s book.
What’s harder, much harder, is to be willing to share in the vicarious experience of that confinement for more than two hours of screen time, especially when you can pretty much guess how it’s all going to end, and that it’s really just a matter of when.
One problem of Papillon might have been a conscious strategy: It makes us see and appreciate all that he’s missing out on. What makes this as much a problem as a virtue is that everything he’s missing we’re missing, too. It’s as if Papillon (Charlie Hunnam) wants to get back to his old life, just as we want to go back to the movie about his old life.
That life is active and vivid, full of people, commotion and entertainment. It’s Paris, 1931, and Papillon is a smooth wise guy making the scene. He’s a crook, working for a ruthless gangster (Christopher Fairbank, in a chilling one-scene performance) and skimming off the top.
He also has a great girlfriend (Eve Hewson), who makes smart suggestions, like he should quit the rackets immediately and move to the country. But Papillon thinks he’s going to be making a killing over the next few months.
The police think so, too, but in a different way: They arrest him for murder, in a gangland frame-up, and he’s convicted and sent to prison at hard labour in French Guyana.
There he meets Dega, an odd little guy played by Rami Malek, who has one of the two things needed to survive prison: money. Papillon has the other: muscle. The two forge a partnership based, at first, on mutual self-interest and later on genuine friendship.
That describes perhaps the first 20 minutes of Papillon. The rest you can guess: Just think of everything that can happen in a prison – as in, lots of incident, but ultimately, it’s still prison.
The one overarching and mildly interesting thing – this, too, is revealed in the first 20 minutes – is that Papillon never for one minute entertains the idea of working through the system, of appealing his case, of relying on the courts.
Perhaps because he’s a crook, he has an informed appreciation of what he’s up against: No matter the odds, he has to escape. There’s no other option.
Hunnam makes a strong impression as a tough guy in the title role, but there’s something about either him or the filmmaking or the subject matter that allows viewers to resist making his problems our problems. We want him to get out, not because his incarceration is a desperate injustice, even though it is. We want him to get out because solitary confinement is boring.
And as for solitary confinement in the dark – that happens, too – well, that isn’t any better. – The San Francisco Chronicle/Tribune News Service/Mick LaSalle
Director: Michael Noer
Cast: Rami Malek, Charlie Hunnam, Tommy Flanagan, Eve Hewson, Rollan Moller, Christopher Fairbank