Papillon is the second film adaptation of Henri Charrière’s classic novel. Film buffs and older audiences will remember the hit 1973 version starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. That was a big-budget release fueled and focused on McQueen’s star power. Danish filmmaker Michael Noer (Key House Mirror, R) takes a more subdued approach. His take on Papillon is character driven and ascetic. The lead performances by Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek are quite good, but the film doesn’t flow as smoothly as expected. There’s a choppiness between the scenes that detracts from the crushing inhumanity and adventurous elements.
Papillon opens in early 1930’s Paris. Charlie Hunnam stars as Henri Charrière, a safecracker nicknamed “Papi” because of the butterfly tattoo on his chest. Papillon is a fierce, arrogant thief romancing a beautiful cabaret dancer (Eve Hewson). His luck runs out when he is framed for murder. Papillon is unjustly sentenced to life in prison at the penal colony on French Guiana. This was tantamount to a death sentence, as the jungle was a hellhole of no return.
Rami Malek co-stars as Louis Dega, a wealthy forger sharing a similar fate. Degas was a slight man, unaccustomed to hardship, convinced his wife and lawyer would secure his release. Papillon offers him a deal. He will protect Dega, as long as the forger bankrolls his escape. The prison is a brutal and unforgiving place. Dega’s weakness makes him a target. Papillon is a stalwart ally, but their actions do not go unnoticed by the guards and warden (Yorick van Wageningen). What follows is an odyssey of suffering that would have killed most men. But Papillon is an extraordinary individual with an indomitable spirit. His friendship with Louis Dega would define them both over the course of many difficult years.
Papillon is a story of resilience and loyalty. The conditions in the prison are awful. The surrounding environment is equally merciless. The entire experience was meant to break men physically and mentally. Papillon and Louis Dega quickly realize the bleakness of their fate. The men support each other through the hardships. Unfortunately for him, Papillon bears the brunt of this treatment. Charlie Hunnam, who wastes away to a near skeleton before our eyes, continues to prove his mettle as an actor. Rami Malek’s performance isn’t nearly as physical, but just as affecting. The lead actors sell the torment. Michael Noer depicts their suffering in painstaking detail.
Papillon tends to run flat when transitioning between acts. This is disappointing because the emotional response established flitters away repeatedly. This shouldn’t be the case. The majority of scenes are well edited. It makes the overall film look piecemeal, fragmented. Michael Noer needed to capture the breathlessness of the multiple escape attempts. They are too straightforward and rote. I can’t help but think Noer wanted to avoid comparisons between the mainstream Hollywood seventies version and his interpretation of the novel. Thus playing it straight when more flourish would have added distinction.
From Bleecker Street Films, Papillon works because of the performances. The escapes aren’t cinematic enough for my taste. But they keep the story afloat enough to warrant a positive recommendation. Charlie Hunnam continues to impress as an actor. He outshines the weaker aspects of Papillon.