There have been a lot of remakes in recent years, many of them considered unneeded. But what if a classic deserves a remake? Is it ever possible that a respected film could ever be more respected through a new interpretation? That’s the question that has been brought to the forefront through the latest take on the classic story “Papillon”. Based on the popular autobiographies “Papillon” and “Banco” from Henri Charrière, “Papillon” was first adapted in 1973 with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman in the leading roles but is one of those tales that actually kind of deserves a more modern retelling. I personally have not seen the first movie yet but I was familiar with the story itself. With that in mind I was able to review this film as a more objective moviegoer seeing it on screen for the first time. So does “Papillon” stand on its own two legs or fall flat on its face in an attempt to adapt its legendary source material? Let’s take a look. This is my review of “Papillon”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“Papillon” focuses on the titular character Henri Charrière (Charlie Hunnam), a small time thief in France who earned the nickname Papillon (French for butterfly) because of his butterfly tattoo. Papillon is accused of a murder he did not commit and finds his hopes for an appeal slashed by the realization that the killing was committed by corrupt officers in power. As a result of his conviction Papillon is deported to a penal colony on Devil’s Island in French Guiana, a real life prison that was known for having a 75% death rate and embracing abusive measures to control its prisoners. On the way to the prison Papillon meets Louis Dega (Rami Malek) a rich man and convicted counterfeiter who agrees to finance any escape Papillon plans in exchange for protection. Determined to regain the freedom wrongfully stripped of him Papillon engages in daring escape attempts the consequences of which challenge his mind, body and soul while he and Dega form a brotherly bond during their captivity.
Like its predecessor, “Papillon” really centers on just two performers both of which give pretty decent performances if not great ones. Charlie Hunnam is the star here as the titular Papillon and his take on the thief turned convict may not be the most complex or layered performance you’ll ever see but he approaches it with a confidence and swagger that demands respect. Again I’ve never seen the original film so I can’t compare performances here, but since this is my first time seeing Papillon portrayed on screen I will say I feel like I got a good idea of what this man might have been like. Right from the get-go we come to understand that he is a shameless thief. He’s a man that has no real problem continuing his life because it brings him more money than “honest man’s work” and thus we are given a main character who is not flawless. In some ways he actually deserves to be in prison and it always feels like Papillon knows this for a fact, just not for the killing he is charged with. That’s the strongest aspect of Hunnam’s performance here, that he provides a charm and a straight-laced persona that shows Papillon as a man aware of his own sins but simply a better man than those who have power over him in the prison. Hunnam is a good actor and while I wouldn’t call this his best performance I will say it’s continued proof that he’s a much more prolific performer than I think he gets credit for.
Speaking of prolific, by far my favorite performance in this film comes from Rami Malek who takes on the role of Louis Dega, Papillon’s real life partner and best friend during their time in prison. Malek brings Dega to life incredibly including a neat accent and mannerisms as well as a mousy personality that we see evolve as the story progresses. He becomes more confident, more resourceful, more ballsy, and even more comfortable in his life of captivity despite the glorious existence he enjoyed while outside of prison. We don’t get to learn much about his story but Malek manages to bring enough depth and life to the role where that doesn’t matter. We feel like we know all we need to know about Dega and the fact that in real life Dega’s time in prison was only documented by Papillon in his book it feels only appropriate that some aspects of his history and personality are left in question. Rami Malek has quickly become a favorite of mine rising in the ranks of super stardom and once again we see that he can bring some great work to the forefront to flesh out a character especially one that grows over many years of time. Whether it’s because of the acting prowess or direction, Dega actually seems to grow more than Papillon does over the course of the story with little things like leg injuries and near-death experiences coming full circle as Dega comes into his own.
Together the two men actually have decent chemistry. At first when Papillon and Dega met on screen I wasn’t sure I’d like the two together but as the movie progressed, and you’ll find this to be a theme in what’s still to come in this review, things got a lot better and smoother until it really did feel like they had a genuine friendship. Hunnam and Malek come off as an awkward paring and to my surprise this didn’t hurt the final product for me. It actually feels like this was done on purpose to accentuate how the men are completely different people forced together out of necessity. They learn from each other and the respect and admiration they have for one another never feels forced or fake. So credit to both actors for helping bring this bond to life.
“Papillon’s” strengths lie in its ability to be more than just a jail break film. What could have been a very generic movie goes much deeper, exploring issues of inmate abuse and the bonds of friendship without ever coming off as too self-important. Even though Papillon has a lot of issues that make him deserving of imprisonment we still can’t help but cheer for him and respect that despite his thieving ways he’s still a good man. The way the story is presented we see both main characters evolve from self-serving convicts into genuine blood brothers who fear for each other’s well being and safety and respect what each of them stands for. There’s an oddly inspiring theme throughout the movie of the value of trust and interpersonal relationships. Papillon and Dega remain good friends even while they are left behind by the outside world, giving them someone to help support their wills to live. Even Papillon’s relationships with other prisoners seem to embrace this theme showing the viewer that one man cannot do it all especially when trying to escape a seemingly impossible scenario. Honestly I didn’t expect this kind of depth from this film and it gave it a memorable charm that had me leaving the theater both inspired and in awe at how genuinely human the whole experience felt.
I also had an appreciation for the brutality incorporated into this film. While it doesn’t go quite as far as I expected in hindsight maybe that wasn’t a bad thing at least when it comes to the abuse of the prisoners. “Papillon” could have been REALLY over the top but instead it comes off as a bit more reserved letting the obviously questionable ethics of the officers and warden speak for themselves and leaning more on atmosphere and the work of the actors to get the point across. This also makes for a much more focused and gripping real life story that leans more on the natural drama rather than trying to force an emotional response. Sure there are some exceptionally brutal scenes, including a beheading, whipping, and an incredibly well done segment where Papillon is in solitary confinement and silence and hallucinations are used to drive home the discomfort of his time there, but it’s all very tasteful without necessarily compromising the tension. “Papillon” isn’t a perfect movie, but it is a surprisingly deep and thought provoking film that, having never seen the original, I found to be a gripping and disturbing experience made even more so by the idea that it’s based on real events.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
The primary problem with “Papillon” is that it has a pacing issue and it’s not always an easy watch because it lacks a lot of energy through most of its first act. While jotting down notes about the movie the one word I used most to describe the first half of the feature was “wooden”. Now usually this is a term used to describe bland acting, but in this context it’s a word I’m using more to describe a film that just never feels like it’s going anywhere until you’re actually there. It’s like a long, boring car ride to a theme part and by the time you get there you’re already tired and it takes you a minute to get your second wind. That’s “Papillon” in a nutshell. The whole first act, and even parts of the second act, feels formulaic and more like it’s going through the motions than actually trying to be interesting. It’s only once Papillon starts to experience the hardships of his prison life that the film actually finds its footing. It just takes SO long to get to that point and then they drag out some odd scenes in the prison colony that feel more like padding that anything meant to add to the story. You could have shaved a half hour off of this 2 hour movie from the first two acts and in my opinion it wouldn’t have lost much. To put it simply I was incredible board waiting for the real action to kick in, but once it DID crank things up it was hard to look away.
Despite actually enjoying “Papillon” as a whole I can also say this project doesn’t really offer enough to stand out as anything close to a classic which, obviously, its predecessor did. “Papillon” doesn’t feel like the grand adventure piece it seems like it was meant to be. It’s a very good movie and if I’m being honest I couldn’t tell you off hand exactly what it’s missing but it IS missing something. For all of its subtleties and brutal moments I didn’t always feel like these were necessarily examples of filmmaking genius but rather it almost felt like director Michael Noer and writer Aaron Guzikowski actually stumbled into making a decent project. It doesn’t take as many chances as you would think and judging by it’s “wooden” first half and the odd pacing it wouldn’t be a stretch to say the filmmakers got lucky and incorporated just enough emotional depth with the right actors and a salvageable script that all just happened to equal a watchable film. I’m not saying there was no effort put into this movie because clearly there was. The set pieces are cool and there are glimmers of creative visuals as well as the aforementioned awesome acting from the film’s stars who are very committed to the project. But “Papillon” never really makes it to the next level. It almost settles for being just good enough without trying to take any real chances to be something even more. What it is works and ends up being an eye-opening drama but what it could have been remains a mystery, for better or worse. The result is a decent, fun and at times brutally honest film that doesn’t really offer anything truly unforgettable and thus even for a guy like me who never saw the first movie it’s hard to see it as anything but a modern remake living in its more well-known and more resonant predecessor’s shadow.
The “Papillon” remake isn’t bad, in fact it’s actually very good. It’s just not great. Having never seen the original film I had nothing to compare it to, so it allowed me to present a completely objective view of the story and I have to say this legendary tale of a wrongfully convicted man trying to escape and inescapable prison won me over by the end of it all. The characters are great, especially the two leads, and each of them feel genuinely human with flaws that prevent them from being perfect but still allow us to root for them. I enjoyed the scenery and setting and while I might have felt the brutality could have been a little more embellished this retelling is still a very uncomfortable viewing in the right ways. Still it takes so long to get to that level that it requires a little too much patience for my taste. The pace isn’t always on point, there’s not always enough energy or interesting moments to keep you engaged and it never really fully develops that “classic” feel that obviously the original struck on that helped it become a must see. Could something more have made “Papillon” a better movie? Sure, yes, absolutely…but it could have also gone the other way and made it a HORRIBLE film that went way over the top so it all depends on what would have been done to argue going further with this idea would have brought for rewards than risk. Either way that’s a long way of me saying “Papillon” gets the job done even if it’s not expert craftmanship. It does do justice to its legendary story and offers enough commentary, emotional depth and historical drama to tide over anyone looking for a watchable biographical film to pass the time.