Much has been made of Henri Charrière’s time in prison not least in his 1969 autobiography Papillon, its sequel Banco – published in ’72 – and the ’73 Franklin J. Schaffner film starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. Even 45 years later, the film was hardly primed for a remake but yet here we are.
Beginning in 1931 Paris, safecracker Henri “Papillon” Charrière (Charlie Hunnam) – so named for the butterfly tattoo on his chest – steals some diamonds for mob boss Jean Castili (Christopher Fairbank). Though, why they all sound like extras from Boardwalk Empire is never explained. Only, Papi’s light fingers also grab a necklace and a few of the precious stones so he and lady love Nennete (Eve Hewson) can eventually do a flit and start a life free from crime. The next morning, he finds himself accused of murder, banged up and set for hard labour in the penal settlement of Bagne de Cayenne (AKA Devil’s Island), French Guiana.
Aboard the transit vessel, an early disembowelling cements Papillon as Louis Degas’ (Rami Malek) protector as he vows to keep the bespectacled con-man alive for the duration of the trip. Degas becomes his bodyguard’s benefactor for any future escape, promising to share the stash of cash he keeps in an intimate place (let’s just say this was long before cavity searches). No one thinks to question the authenticity of the roll of banknotes despite Degas’ counterfeiting crimes, however, an unlikely friendship forms between the two as they reluctantly embrace their jailtime.
Papillon’s first escape attempt doesn’t quite go to plan and it lands him in solitary confinement for two years under the watchful eye of Warden Barrot (Yorick van Wageningen), a large man with a gentle voice who’s genuinely curious about the prisoner that can withstand and survive solitary. Any other time he stands, holding court to his kneeling prisoners, in front of a guillotine wearing a cream linen suit – a bit like a sadistic Man From Del Monte.
Even if you haven’t seen the first film, this is a story which will instantly seem familiar. Michael Noer’s rendition may be bookended by an epilogue and prologue – presumably to incorporate more of the source material – however, that’s where the differences begin and end as the plot in between is practically identical to Schnaffer’s. Director Noer and his production designer Tom Moyer, cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski, and composer David Buckley work incredibly hard to deliver a pacy epic (based on Aaron ‘Prisoners‘ Guzikowski’s script). It often looks (and sounds) amazing, however, it remains unconvincing in its central performances.
Hunnam doesn’t have the hubris and gravitas of McQueen who inhabited the role of Papi effortlessly (although Hunnam’s is certainly the gentler of the two) and Malek – fresh from his outstanding turn as Freddie Mercury – seems to sleepwalk through his version of the bookish Degas, perhaps those shoes were just too large to fill. Neither character looks particularly lived-in, save for their last scenes together despite the (eventual) 14-year sentence, and overall it lacks the dingy grime and dirt of the original which may have been melodramatic in comparison but at least carried some tension with it. Even the fight scene in the prison shower (of course, there’s always one) comes off as risible as it’s choreographed within an inch of its life, clearly to prevent any display of full-frontal male nudity.
Yes, an argument can be made that this Papillon is purposefully hopeless and, at times, more brutal than its predecessor acting as a commentary of today’s prison system and its privatisation but you’ll find more anger and urgency in the likes of Brawl in Cell Block 99 or even Oz, and Orange is the New Black. While it pushes the ‘true story’ angle despite the questionable ‘facts’ (according to prison records, Charrière was never on Devil’s Island), one wonders if there could have been more care taken with casting or if utilising other aspects of the man’s life after prison might have elevated the already excellent story and produced something, well, more.
Papillon is by no means a mitigated disaster, nor is it as compelling as the original source material however embellished and/or fictitious elements of it were. It’s a decent prison-drama for those unfamiliar with the exploits of real-life Charrière, and McQueen’s screen incarnation. For the rest of us, most will argue that the best cinematic version of that story has already been told.