T here are lots of reasons to remake a film. One of the best and most obvious is the desire to bring a new interpretation to a story, and that motivation has certainly led to a lot of great works, including many of William Shakespeare’s plays. The least admirable is the desire to cash in on brand recognition without doing the work necessary to create something that can stand on its own, and there’s no reason to be surprised when that approach is taken, because they don’t call it show business for nothiing.
Michael Noer’s remake of Papillon falls somewhere between the two poles. The general shape of the story will be familiar to anyone who has seen Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1973 film, since Noer’s film is based partly on the screenplay of that film (written by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple, Jr.), as well as the original source material (two bestselling novels or memoirs, depending on who you ask, by Henri Charrière, the real-life Papillon). But you could never mistake one film for the other—Noer offers a much grimmer take on the events portrayed, a choice which is echoed in the often muddy cinematography, and denies the audience some of the obvious emotional payoffs of the earlier film.
Papillon opens with a unnecessary prequel in 1930s Paris so frenetic that you half expect a Baz Luhrmann musical to break out. Charrière (Charlie Hunnam), a safe-cracker with a beautiful girlfriend (Eve Hewson), runs afoul of a mob boss and finds himself framed for murder. He’s sentenced to transportation to French Guiana (South America), along the way forging a friendship of sorts (originally based on financial considerations, but later proving more sincere) with the forger Louis Dega (Rami Malek). Conditions in the prison colony are brutal (reportedly most men sent there did not survive their first year), the guards are sadistic, and Charrière’s thoughts are constantly on escape.
Charrière does not have an easy time of it, spending a long stretch in solitary, making multiple unsuccessful escape attempts, and eventually being removed to the supposedly escape proof penal colony on Devil’s Island, which had earlier housed the more famous prisoner Alfred Dreyfus. You’ll be pleased to hear that Hunnam retains his gym-bunny physique and carefully trimmed hair throughout, and that (spoiler alert!) he does not abandon his efforts to escape. Many dramatic events play out before our eyes, but virtually none of it has any emotional impact, and most of the characters and incidents are utterly forgettable. That charge cannot be laid on Malek, however, who improves considerably on Dustin Hoffman’s rather hammy performance as Steve McQueen’s polar opposite. His performance is the single best thing about this film, and it goes a long way toward making the endless scenes of dreariness, punctuated by violence, bearable.
Papillon offers a bleak modern take on an heroic (and possibly largely fabricated) story, so much so that you might mistake the title character for the antihero in one of the many television series exploiting that concept. That’s certainly a new interpretation, although the execution of it doesn’t really offer enough to justify this film’s existence. | Sarah Boslaugh