×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Papillon’

Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek take the penal-colony punishment once doled out to Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.

Director:
Michael Noer
With:
Charlie Hunnam, Rami Malek, Yorick Van Wageningen, Roland Moller, Tommy Flanagan, Eve Hewson, Joel Bassman, Michael Socha. (English dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5093026/

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Papillon'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 7, 2017. Running time: 133 MIN.

Production: (Serbia-Montenegro-Malta) A Papillon Movie LLC presentation of a Joey McFarland and Ram Bergman, Fishcorb Films production. (Sales: CAA, Los Angeles.) Producers: Joey McFarland, David Kopland, Ram Bergman, Roger Corbi. Executive producers: Martin Hellstern, Yan Fisher-Romanovsky, Joshua Maurer, Kevan Van Thompson, Christian Mercuri, Danny Dimbort, Terence, Chang, Samuel Hadida.

Crew: Director: Michael Noer. Screenplay: Aaron Guzikowski, based on the books "Papillon" and "Banco" by Henri Charrièere and the 1973 screenplay by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Hagen Bogdanski. Editors: John Axelrad, Lee Haugen. Music: David Buckley.

With: Charlie Hunnam, Rami Malek, Yorick Van Wageningen, Roland Moller, Tommy Flanagan, Eve Hewson, Joel Bassman, Michael Socha. (English dialogue)

More Film

  • Charlie-Chaplin-and-Horse-Roy-Export-Co

    Carmen Chaplin to Direct ‘Charlie Chaplin, a Man of the World’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    SAN SEBASTIAN  — Director-producer-actress Carmen Chaplin is set to direct “Charlie Chaplin, a Man of the World,” a theatrical documentary feature which will add a hardly-explored new facet to the creator of the Tramp, one of the most iconic cinema characters in popular consciousness, plumbing Chaplin’s Romani roots and heritage. Marking the first time that [...]

  • Incitement

    'Incitement' Wins Ophir Award for Best Picture, Becomes Israel's Oscar Submission

    “Incitement” was the best-picture winner at Israel’s Ophir Awards on Sunday night, automatically becoming the country’s choice to vie for the international feature film Oscar. The winning film, a drama about the period leading up to the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish extremist in 1995, had its global premiere at [...]

  • LargoAI

    LargoAI Wins Inaugural San Sebastian Zinemaldia & Technology Startup Challenge

    SAN SEBASTIAN  —  Swiss artificial intelligence and data analytics company LargoAI won Sunday’s first-ever San Sebastian Film Festival Zinemaldia & Technology Startup Challenge. LargoAI’s software provides data-driven filmmaking strategies, similar to those used by major VOD platforms which aggregate and often horde their own user-driven data. From early in the screenwriting process through development and [...]

  • MARIANA-RONDÓN-MARITÉ-UGÁS

    FiGa Snags 'Contactado,' By The Team Behind San Sebastian Winner 'Pelo Malo' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Sandro Fiorin’s FiGa Films has picked up worldwide sales rights to “Contactado,” the upcoming feature by Sudaca Films’ Marité Ugás and Mariana Rondón, the duo behind San Sebastian 2013 Golden Shell winner, “Pelo Malo.” The Sudaca partners are attending San Sebastian to pitch Rondón-helmed project “Zafari” at the 8th Europe-Latin American Co-production Forum. Directed by [...]

  • Brad Pitt stars in “Ad Astra”.

    'Ad Astra' Lifts Above Competition at International Box Office With $26 Million

    Though “Ad Astra” was overthrown by the Crawley family at the domestic box office, Brad Pitt’s astronaut drama reigned supreme at the international box office. Directed by James Gray, “Ad Astra” launched overseas with $26 million from 44 foreign markets. The $80 million sci-fi epic debuted in North America with $19.2 million, bringing global box [...]

  • hugh jackman tiff bad education

    Toronto's Biggest Deal Goes to HBO: A Sign of the Future? (Column)

    When it comes to how we’ll be watching movies — or, at least, watching serious dramas for adults — in the future, here are two stark and timely contradictory facts: 1. Last week, as the Toronto International Film Festival drew to a close, a deal that had been in the rumor stage for a while [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content