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 Charriere’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 (Butterfly) breezing through his merry life in the Montmartre section of Paris, 1931. Life is good, and Charlie Hunnam, who plays Papillon, enjoys himself to the fullest, in or out of the bed of his lover, portrayed by Eve Hewson.
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, on the coast of South America, sends Papillon into a series of rescue attempts. Along with another convict, counterfeiter Louis Dega (Rami Malek, trying as hard as possible not to “do” Dustin Hoffman), 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, even though the new “Papillon” runs about 20 minutes shorter than the old one. Plenty of movies, prison movies and every other kind, don’t feel the least bit draggy at this length. But the rhythms of Charriere’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. The new paperback edition of Charriere’s memoir includes an essay by Howard Marks, dealing with various accusations of ghostwriters and fabrications. Certainly Charriere’s dialogue-heavy memories in the memoir are a bit suspect. Oh, whatever, Marks concludes. “Who cares? The end result is magnificent.”
I wish the movie were. In ’73, “Papillon” got the plodding Important Motion Picture treatment; this time, the results are leaner, less sardonic (wiseacre William Goldman did uncredited rewrites on the McQueen/Hoffman film) but rarely exciting, despite the more explicit violence and sexuality. Malek’s Dega keeps his voice to a flat register, never quite making the performance his own. Hunnam’s reliably charismatic in suffering and in joy, but with most of the political and wartime context shaved off the story, once again, we’re left with the basics.
What Charriere endured, and finally left behind, has already proved irresistible to a global audience. This retelling – prettily assembled, a little dull – gives that audience little that’s truly new.
2 1/2 stars