Film review: Papillon

September 29, 2018
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“PAPILLON” was first filmed in 1973 based on the French autobiography of Henri Charriere published in 1969. Henri was imprisoned at a penal colony from 1931 to 1945 and the film is about his repeated attempts to escape from French Guiana and the island prison called Devil’s Island located on the North Atlantic coast of South America.

The first version starred the late Steve McQueen in the title role, with Dustin Hoffman as his friend, Louis Dega. In the new version, Charlie Hunnam stars as Papillon and Rami Malek (who’s about to be launched big time as Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody” this November.)

Henri is a safecracker nicknamed Papillon because of the butterfly tattoo on his chest. At the start, we see him in Moulin Rouge looking so debonaire with his lovely girlfriend (Eve Hewson), seemingly untouchable. But he incurs the ire of his gangster boss, who framed him up for killing a pimp and he’s sentenced to life imprisonment. The warden warns them to go ahead and try to escape. If they’re not shot by the guards, they’ll perish in the jungle. If they get to the water, the sharks will get them.

This doesn’t daunt Papillon and he becomes friends with Dega, a forger-swindler who is convinced that his wife will work for his quick release. Henri offers to protect Dega if he’d help him escape. They were first placed in a labor camp and they had to endure years of brutality from sadistic guards. After rescuing Dega from a brutal guard, he tries to escape but is captured and sent to solitary confinement.

Dega secretly sends extra coconut for him, but when this is discovered, the warden covers Papillon’s cell in darkness, only to be lifted if he’d reveal who is sending him coconuts. Although starving and hallucinating, he refuses to squeal on Dega. This is just the first attempt and there will be others, including an escape to Colombia where they’re rescued by a native tribe and betrayed by a nun. All of it shows his tenacity and determination despite intolerable suffering, until he finally gets it right.

The remake is from Danish director Michael Noer in his English language debut, and the first thing you can say about it is that it doesn’t have the compelling star presence of McQueen and Hoffman, who were already top stars then, making the film a big worldwide hit. It also benefitted from the fact that the novel was very popular then, an international best-seller 45 years ago. The remake doesn’t have that advantage as no one now seems to remember who Papillon is.

But in terms of being a blood, sweat and tears version, the remake remains to be an engrossing tale of survival and one man’s quest for freedom. It matches the bone-crunching guts of the original, with more violence and foul language. The production design is splendid as we can really feel the nightmare of being trapped in a dirty prison camp. Charlie Hunnam tries his best to inhabit his role, showing much resilience even if he’s facing a life of misery, but even if he gets very thin due to starvation, he never loses his muscles and abs. We also wish they included here one of the best lines that Steve McQueen shouted twice in the original while shaking his fist to the sky: “Hey you, bastards, I’m still here!” This really shows Papillon’s indomitable spirit.

But the remake shows Henri’s full redemption after experiencing so much dehumanizing suffering. The original movie ended after he jumps into the sea from a cliff in Devil’s Island and it’s just narrated that he made it to freedom and lived the rest of his life as a freeman. In the remake, archival photos of the real Henri and the real prison are shown and there is an epilogue showing an older Charlie Hunnam inside a plane on his way back to France in 1969. He is then shown submitting the manuscript of his memoir to a publisher. The rest, as they say, is history. It became an international success translated into 30 languages and a very successful film.