A Remake We Didn't Ask For
There is a line of dialogue in Papillon in which the prison warden says to his titular captive immediately upon opening the cell door at the conclusion of the prisoner's five-year stint in solitary confinement: "Not many make it five years in here; what is it out there that you are living for?”
That moment is intended to connect viewers to the film’s deeper themes of love, friendship, and loyalty and to force us to contemplate what’s important in our own lives. Are the things we deem important worth enduring five years of beatings, starvation, and total sensory deprivation?
Perhaps the scene might carry its intended weight had we been allowed to fully invest our sympathy -- or even pity -- in the story’s main characters, their struggles, and what it is that they are actually living for. But as it is, we never really get to know them. We sympathize with their plight as they endure nearly daily beatings at the hands of egomaniacal guards or deranged fellow prisoners, but the symbolism of the scene, its importance, and how it speaks to the resilience of the human spirit seems lost in a haze of blood, brutality, and graphic violence. It never transcends as a metaphor for our own personal struggles that keep us held captive in some form or another. That crucial oversight is but one of numerous missed opportunities that plague the new Papillon, a remake we never asked for and one that certainly doesn’t add to the Papillon legacy.
This film is a remake of the 1973 classic starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. It tells the true story of two men who forged a lasting friendship out of one of the least friendly of situations imaginable; serving time in one of the world’s most notorious prisons. While an inmate in the infamous penal colony system in French Guiana during the 1930’s, professional safecracker and underworld gangster, Henri Charriére (Charlie Hunnam) -- dubbed “Papillon” for the butterfly tattoo he bears on his chest -- would endure intense beatings and savage torture before eventually befriending notorious counterfeiter and fellow inmate Louis Dega (Rami Malek), who pledged to underwrite Charriére’s planned escape from the dangerous prison in exchange for protection while the two are incarcerated.
The new movie is directed by Danish filmmaker Michael Noer who works from a script that claims to be a more faithful interpretation of Charriére’s memoir and book of his ordeal than was the ’73 original. I’m in a bit of a compromising situation with this one, in that I consider the Franklin J. Schaffner-directed original among the top five on my list of best films of all time, so it is inevitable that comparisons between the two films will be made in this text, the biggest of which is the failure to capture the humanity and most of the emotional beats of both Charriére’s story and of Schaffner’s film. Noer spends a bit more time at the beginning of his film in 1930s Paris as we are introduced to Charriére and girlfriend Nenette (Eve Hewson) before he is suddenly arrested, wrongfully accused of the murder of a local pimp, and shipped away to prison.
Hunnam is up against a tough task here. McQueen’s Charriére/Papillon is widely considered one of the actor’s best. Some of McQueen’s most memorable scenes were of his skeletal frame stalking the corners of his cell, eyes gaunt, and lips peeling as he crushed insects for protein. We felt the rottenness and smelled the stench. But here, Hunnam never rises above the material he is given, and as a result, his Papillon is but a fragile shell of the legend … but with more pronounced abs. Yes, there is a nude outdoor shower scene.
We learn very little of Degas’ backstory which is a bit disappointing as his character, as originally written, is the most interesting of the two; a refined millionaire without the social or physical tools to survive prison. It is difficult to avoid the distinct impression that Malek went back and watched Hoffman’s performance and is channeling his counterpart’s neurotic mannerisms and gravelly voice. A new take on the character would have been a welcome change and a much respected reach for the actor.
The two men are the heart of Charriére’s story, but because the actors never strike that magic chemistry, we never totally buy in to their undying relationship. And the serious misunderstanding -- or, perhaps misrepresentation -- of this relationship is the film’s greatest flaw. It is when we arrive at the penal colony that Noer comes to life. The director is at his best when his camera takes in atmosphere and mood rather than human character. Whether the sights and sounds of the Parisian nightlife, or the stifling jungles of French Guiana, under the aid of cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski, he certainly knows where to put the camera for maximum effect. But missing is our fear of the prison, and the tension that comes from watching the pink-faced newbies walking into the hell-on-earth they don’t yet know. Sure, we see the suffering, we hear the horrific cries of terror, and we experience the human suffering. But since we barely know the men, the impact of it all is severely neutered.
Without a unique take or totally different vision, it is baffling why anyone felt this classic prison tale needed a revisit. We are told because it more accurately follows Charriére’s story. If that is true, then the original itself wasn’t that far off. The film's tagline tells us this is the greatest escape adventure ever told. While that may indeed be true, the movie telling the story certainly never achieves the same heights.
(Released by Bleeker Street Media and rated “R” for violence including bloody images, language, nudity and some sexual material.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.