Film Review – Papillon (2018)

Nostalgia is ruling cinemas. It’s a week when Mary Poppins Returns for her sequel, some 54 years after the release of the beloved original, and when a re-boot of a 45 year old epic arrives, albeit it in a more modest way. It’s Papillon. Originally made in 1973 with Steve McQueen, in arguably his best performance as the titular hero, and Dustin Hoffman, it’s now back on screens with Charlie Hunnam and man-of-the-moment Remi Malek in their respective roles. But, when the original is so good, why re-make it at all?

Money always figures somewhere in the answer but, given the title’s modest box office performance in the States and its limited distribution here, there must be another reason. If there is, it’s hard to find in a version that’s more superficial and less engaging than its predecessor. Based on the memoirs of Henri Charriere (Hunnam), a real life thief who was framed for murder and sent to the French penal colonies – yes, the setting’s French, but you’d never think it – it’s the story of his resilience, survival under the harshest conditions and repeated escape attempts. It also traces his unlikely friendship with forger Louis Degas (Malek), a far less robust character but whose survival instinct is just as strong.

Compared to the original, with its running time of over two and a half hours, the storyline has been pared down substantially, with fewer characters, yet somehow it still ends up being over two hours long. Not a good sign. Violence of the graphic variety – disembowelment, anybody? – is brought very much to the fore yet when it comes to Charriere’s – he’s known as Papillon because of his butterfly tattoo – endurance, his five years in solitary confinement is almost brushed over. As are the physical results of the starvation diet: admittedly, Hunnam lost 40 pounds for this aspect of the role and it shows, but his teeth remain remarkably white and intact. Contrast that with the moment when McQueen pulls a rotting tooth from his own mouth of decidedly manky molars. Any attempts at authenticity, and from the archive shots at the end this was clearly in the forefront of director Michael Noer’s mind, seem to go out of the window.

We all get the butterfly metaphor and how Papillon’s tattoo encapsulates his character. He can’t be held down, in or out of prison, and his will to survive is all-consuming so that he gets through two spells in solitary, even retaining his sanity against all the odds. Degas is reliant on him for protection and there’s more than a hint of homo-eroticism in their relationship: it’s all from his side and is, ultimately, left up in the air, so that we never know.

Perhaps the biggest problem on the list is Hunnam in the lead. Hardly ever off the screen, he simply doesn’t have the charisma or acting chops to shoulder the weight that goes with the role. He hardly seems to age throughout the film – yet another inconsistency – and seldom varies his facial expression, except perhaps when he’s in a fight. The fact that Malek introduces some subtlety into his performance – he can never forget his past life while Papillon has consigned his to oblivion – makes him more interesting, even though his voice constantly sounds like he’s imitating Hoffman.

It’s all rather uninspired, close to being a pale imitation of its predecessor. Even the attempt to make the argument against brutal prison conditions feels like an afterthought, tagged on at the end and not fully explored in the body of the film. And, let’s face it, there was more than enough time. As re-makes go, this is very much second best.

Freda Cooper | [rating=2]

Crime, Mystery, Drama | UK, 21 December (2018) | Signature Entertainment | Dir. Michael Noer | Charlie Hunnam, Remi Malek, Yorick van Wageningen, Antonio de la Cruz, Roland Moller.

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