2018-10-19 06:40
Rami Malek in Papillon


In the early 20th century, a small time thief named Henry “Papillon” Charriere is wrongly convicted of murder and is sent to the hellish, maximum-security prison on Devil’s Island in French Guiana – a penal colony known for being all but impossible to escape. Upon arriving at the prison, Papillon – or Pappi, to his friends – teams up with the bookish rich but physically weak, Louis Dega, in an effort to first survive the place and then, ultimately, do the impossible and escape from the inescapable prison. Based on a true story.


One week after the release of A Star is Born, we are once again back with a remake of a well-known and largely well-received film from the 1970s. Unlike a Star is Born, though, Papillon probably should have stayed in the 1970s. Here’s the kicker, though: Papillon is a genuinely good, well made film – it’s just one that I find all but impossible to actually recommend.     

Aside for working as a very potent reminder of why strict civil right laws should apply to prisons for even the worst criminals, Papillon simply doesn’t have any real reason to exist. Not, oddly enough, because it’s a remake – that the original is forty-five years old and, as something that is largely considered good rather than a truly timeless classic, has room for improvement aren’t bad reasons to revisit this incredible tale – but because it tries to serve two masters and falls flat between the two of them. 

Before even getting that, though, while it may easily escape the shadow of the original film, like every single prison drama released over the past two decades, it has has significantly more trouble escaping the long shadow of the Shawshank Redemption: the people’s choice for “the greatest film ever made”. And the similarities here are hardly just a matter of overall genre. Both films are centred around the unlikely friendship of two quite different prisoners; both feature a wrongfully accused protagonist and both films are all about how these two prisoners find the will to live through the horrors and dangers of prison life. Those horrors are, indeed, much more horrifying in Papillon and the dangers are a whole lot more dangerous too but the comparisons are hard to overlook.

Even if you can overlook such stark similarities, though, there is the rather major problem that the film is too gruelling (especially in its first half) to work as pure entertainment but it’s far too flawed – trashy even – to work as a Good Film either. 

It is capably directed by Danish filmmaker, Michael Noer, and beautifully shot by Hagen Bogdanski who starkly contrasts the muted tones of the prison with the almost painterly, vivid colours of the world outside. It is well acted with Rami Malick bringing his own fascinatingly odd physical presence to what is otherwise a very good evocation of Dustin Hoffman, who played Louis Dega in the original, and Charlie Hunnam finally impresses in the title role after years of failing hopelessly to bring the charm he displayed in the unfairly cancelled cult series, Undeclared, to the big screen. And, most of all, it’s simply an incredible true story that is undoubtedly well worth (re)telling.

Unfortunately, it is lacking in a number of areas to truly translate into a seriously impressive art-house film. On the more nitpicky side of things – and this is very, very nitpicky – this is a film about French people in a French prison on a South American colony but nearly everybody speaks with American accents – and very broad American accents, at that. And those that don’t, stick out all the more for it. It’s a silly point, I know, but I’ll be damned if it didn’t take me a good half an hour to get past it! 

More seriously, though, Papillon is a film desperately in need of some depth. It’s a film that tells an exceptional story but seems to have very little to actually say about it. In particular, Papillon himself is a very thinly-drawn character who is shown to have great willpower to survive his soul-crushing environment but there is almost no indication of what it is that is actually driving him. Further, the relationship between Papillon and Louis is never fully explored either, with the latter vanishing for large portions of the film and their bond never fully convincing as anything other than one of convenience – despite the film itself trying to convince us of their deep friendship. It’s not that it fails completely on the latter point, but it fails just enough to be highly frustrating.

If the film is too empty to work as a profound work of art, it needed to work as a solid bit of mass-market entertainment (ideally, it would work as both but lets not push it...) but it falls just short here too. There are some exciting action-adventure scenes to be had, to be sure, and there is even some rousing and well-earned sentimentality at the end there but it still never quite manages to deliver on its promise of being “the greatest escape adventure ever told.” 

The reason for this is very simple. It’s just way, way, way too gruelling in its depiction of the horrific conditions of prison life on the notorious Devil’s Island – including two multi-year stays in solitary confinement – to ever have a hope in hell of being much in the way of fun. It’s admirable in its way, to be sure, as you don’t necessarily want to trivialise or anaesthetise what these men went through but, again, while that would be entirely appropriate for a “serious” film, it absolutely undercuts any chance the film had of being an enjoyable slice of mainstream entertainment – at least, for any of us who don’t find harsh depictions of human suffering to be particularly entertaining. 

Mores the pity, then, that I can’t in good conscious actually recommend Papillon. It gets so much right that I would love to give it at least a moderate recommendation but it fails on such a fundamental level that I honestly can’t imagine it actually working for anyone at all. It’s a truly admirable failure, but it’s a failure nevertheless.

Read more on:    charlie hunnam  |  rami malek  |  movie review  |  movies

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