Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman were at the height of their stardoms in 1973, and Franklin J. Schaffner’s original “Papillon” film that year was a prestige vehicle scaled for greatness — at two-and-a-half hours that felt longer, treating its epic tale too solemnly for some tastes. Nonetheless, its somewhat self-conscious gravity has aged well.
In almost every respect, Danish director Michael Noer’s remake — which as “inspired by true events” credits equally real-life protagonist Henri Charrière’s memoirs and the earlier screenplay as sources — is a humbler enterprise, although still ambitious and impressive enough. New stars Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek are neither burdened nor burnished by already-iconic star status; this brisker telling is less pretentious if also less distinctive as large-scale filmmaking. In the end, what matters most is that the principally unchanged story of survival in colonial French Guiana remains a compelling one, no less when played as a relatively straightforward action-suspense saga rather than as a gargantuan allegory about the Indomitable Human Spirit.
Noer and scenarist Aaron Guzikowski open things up with a rotely over-amped prelude showing Charrière’s roguish persona as a safecracker (played by Hunnam), AKA “Papillon,” in 1931 Paris. His underground high life with glam girlfriend Nenette (Eve Hewson) comes to an abrupt end, however, when he’s framed for a gangland murder, presumably in retaliation for having kept some stolen jewels. Joining him on the shipboard gangplank to a life sentence in South America is millionaire currency counterfeiter Louis Dega (Malek of “Mr. Robot”). It is well-known that only money can make life where they’re headed bearable; and also that Dega is sure to be hiding some on his person. He’s soon more than willing to accept “Papi’s” offer of strong-arm protection in return for funding the latter’s eventual (if seemingly impossible) escape hopes.
Things only get worse upon arrival, as the duo endure various hardships even before they’re separated — having stopped Dega’s beating by a guard, Papillon is sentenced to an even more brutal two years’ isolation in silence (and, eventually, darkness). They’re reunited afterward to scheme a flight that comes to involve two other prisoners (Roland Moller and Joel Bassman) and, as in the 1973 edition, proves to be the film’s most exciting setpiece. Yet the tale still sprawls onward over years and further deprivations, encompassing a final stint on Devil’s Island and a decades-later coda.
Papillon was one of uber-cool McQueen’s most challenging roles, and best performances; Hoffman’s very physically mannered turn (complete with Little Tramp walk and Coke-bottle glasses) was neither. Still, their combined wattage made for a more poignant portrait of impossibly enduring male friendship than the talented young actors manage here. It’s not really the new cast’s fault — though Noer calls this a “love story,” he hasn’t made the sparse human connections possible in this telling as stirring as Schafner’s more monumental approach rendered them (in a project that French maestro Jean-Pierre Melville dreamt of directing at the time). Nonetheless, Hunnam (though better in his other 2017 historical epic, “Lost City of Z”) is impressive, particularly during the physical deterioration of the long isolation setpiece. Malek is solid, but Dega could have used more slyness or some other distinguishing characteristic.
There’s more graphic violence this time around, as well as more dialogue, sometimes of a cruder nature than necessary. (Neither speech or casting bother much to foster an atmosphere of retro Gallic culture in this English-language production, shot on Malta as well as in former Yugoslavian territories.) The physical production is aptly both gritty and handsome in Hagen Bogdanski’s cinematography, with strong contributions from production designer Tom Meyer and other principal collaborators. David Buckley contributes a low-key but effective score.
For those who remember the earlier film fondly, this new “Papillon” may feel unnecessary, lacking sufficient style and gravitas by comparison. But on its own terms, Noer’s adventure is ultimately a dramatic and dynamic-enough telling of an indelible fact-based story to connect with viewers. Now as then, they’ll need to be willing to serve a sentence — however greatly reduced from its inspiration — that involves considerable punishment en route to redemptive uplift.