Henri Charriere (Charlie Hunnam) could crack any safe put in front of him, grabbing jewels for mobsters while making plans for the future…until one day one of those devious employers turned on him and framed Henri for murder. Stripped of his tools and imprisoned on the brutal and dehumanizing island of the French Guiava for life, Henri had two choices: die slowly or find a way out. Papillon-Henri’s nickname in jail and French for butterfly-is his story.
Michael Noer’s film-a remake of the 1973 film starring Steve McQueen and adapted from Charriere’s books, “Papillon” and “Banco”-spins a tune about the idea that wardens and prison guards can be more deadlier and deplorable than the men they watch over in chains. Nearly 80,000 French prisoners found their way to this colony of horrors, which includes guillotines, two-year solitary confinements, and a forever home for immates called “Devil’s Island.”
For Henri, this European shop of horrors became his dressing room for numerous escapes, many of which fail miserably and left him in isolation for years. He did manage to form an indelible bond with convicted forger Louis Dega (a magnetic Rami Malek), an eccentric money guy who hides his funds in his colon, making him an easy target for his fellow prisoners. Henri and Louis make an agreement: protection in exchange for funding an escape.
This alliance-formed over many years of torment, beatings, and blood-eventually turns into a reluctant friendship, which forms the foundation of Noer’s film. Look, you show me an prison escape film and I’ll grab two bowls of popcorn and be yours for two hours. If you manage to drop a soulful twist on the proceedings while retaining the edge of a survival flick, there’s something special working here. Take or leave the thwarted attempts to break free or the ruthlessness of the warden (Yorwick van Wageningen), but the quiet moments of Papillon are what shines the brightest in this late summer delight.
Hunnam does a credible job in the lead role, acquitting himself well in the physical moments while finding some grace in the more dramatic sequences. An underrated actor blessed with movie star looks, Hunnam can’t quite carry a film on his shoulders alone yet, but he’s capable of holding your attention. He lost over 30 pounds for the more strenuous scenes of Henri peeling away his soul while stuck in solitary confinement, and this is where the actor does his best work. Hunnam may not be a star just yet, but he can light the screen on fire.
Malek is the real gem here. Movie audiences know him from Mr. Robot and will certainly associate him with Freddie Mercury with this fall’s Bohemian Rhapsody, but he makes Louis his own. I’m not sure what Dustin Hoffman did with the role 45 years ago, but Malek has a way of taking a single line of dialogue and breathing a wave of emotion into it. A small man with a big brain, Louis is confident enough to know what he can and can’t do. A guy who is sure of himself while being petrified of what can befall a man in prison at the same time, Malek has some fun with the different levels of emotion that Louis must visit in this story.
There’s a scene near the end of the film where the two actors could have chewed scenery and tried to do too much, but they instead chose restraint and ended up making it perfect. Two men staring out at an ocean of possibilities, throwing their future against each wave and seeing if it can still breathe under the weight of oppression. Do you want to hear something crazy? This scene reminded me of Shawshank Redemption’s final moments. It just did. David Buckley’s rightfully understated score hit all the right notes and the actors were in it.
Papillon doesn’t have many new tricks up his sleeve when it comes to prison escape tales, but it does have above-average acting and a quiet soulfulness about it that separates it just enough from the rest of the chained up and fed up crowd of cinematic treats.
Hunnam and Malek take the material and make it something more on the screen, which makes the final scenes connect and compel so easily. Without their convincing portrayals, the film falls apart.
All Henri Charriere wanted to do when he got to prison was escape, so he could get back to a life of debauchery. He had no idea he’d eventually be escaping the version of himself that had been holding him down his entire life. Papillon, his story, was worth a remake and should make appreciate every day of fresh air you get.