This retelling — prettily assembled, a little dull — gives audiences little that’s truly new. Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek star. Rating: 2.5 stars out of 4.
The new film version of “Papillon” — based on Henri Charrière’s 1969 best-seller and its 1973 sequel, “Banco” — is rather better than the previous screen adaptation starring Steve McQueen (mouth closed) and Dustin Hoffman (mouth agape). For some that’ll be heresy. For others, it’s a diffident Gallic shrug of a recommendation.
That earlier “Papillon” — a big hit in the year (1973) of “The Sting,” “The Exorcist” and “American Graffiti” — holds a place of respect in the hearts of millions, as do Charrière’s own accounts of wily endurance, before, during and after his time on the penal colony known as Devil’s Island. Tales of unlikely escape from the worst prisons known to humankind exert a peculiar hold on moviegoers. For a couple of grueling hours, we trade our own circumstances for someone else’s brutal extremes, and we come away drained as well as inspired — Shawshanked, in other words.
So what is it about this particular story that resists fully satisfying cinematic treatment?
Partly, I think, it’s because you can believe only so much of it. The new “Papillon,” directed by Danish documentary and feature filmmaker Michael Noer, covers more ground chronologically than the previous one, which is a welcome change. In Aaron Guzikowski’s script, we meet the dashing safecracker nicknamed Papillon (played by Charlie Hunnam) breezing through his merry life in the Montmartre section of Paris, 1931.
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Abruptly, Papillon’s arrested and convicted of a murder he didn’t commit, and he is flung into the cesspool of the French penal system shortly afterward. Life imprisonment in French Guiana sends Papillon into a series of rescue attempts. Along with another convict, counterfeiter Louis Dega (Rami Malek), Papi eventually finds himself on the notorious Devil’s Island, from which no man has ever escaped.
Spanning 1931-1945, the new “Papillon” was filmed in Serbia and on Malta. Its early scenes of the Moulin Rouge heyday are pure backlot artifice, later phasing into director Noer’s penchant for handheld immediacy, getting as close as possible to shower brawls, throat-slittings, grimy sexual exploitations and Papillon’s years in solitary.
The film dutifully hits the highlights of the escape attempts. Hunnam is the movie’s focal point as well as its lust object, box-office appeal and moral center; he’s a good-guy criminal who never hurt a fly until the sadistic French penal system grabbed hold of him. Dega, a coward and a weakling, needs his friend’s protection. In exchange, he bankrolls the various bribes and payoffs needed to make a successful break from Devil’s Island, his money tucked safely away in his posterior.
As for your own posterior, it may undergo a bit of an endurance test. The rhythms of Charrière’s version of his life story become wearying after a while: confinement, escape attempt, punishment, bloodletting, confinement, escape attempt, repeat. The characters themselves are vagaries, types, not quite three-dimensional people.
What Charrière endured, and finally left behind, has already proven irresistible to a global audience. This retelling — prettily assembled, a little dull — gives that audience little that’s truly new.
★★½ “Papillon,” with Charlie Hunnam, Rami Malek, Eve Hewson. Directed by Michael Noer, from a screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski, based on books “Papillon” and “Banco” by Henri Charrière. 133 minutes. Rated R for violence including bloody images, language, nudity, and some sexual material. Opens Aug. 24 at multiple theaters.