By Jim Slotek
In some ways, Danish director Michael Noer’s attempt at retelling the tale of Henri Charrière’s repeated (and eventually successful) escape attempts from the penal colony in French Guiana is a cover version. The events and notes remain more or less the same. The repeated escape attempts, and the grinding day-to-day of life in a prison colony - as much as they are a testament to the human spirit - also become grinding over the two-hour plus running time of both films.
The question of whether the movie was a good idea in the first place may be answered by the fact that the rebooted Papillon debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017 and has taken nearly a year to be released theatrically.
But there really is no way any competent director could tell this story without its compelling events shining through. It’s no slight to designated hunk Charlie Hunnam (The Lost City of Z) and Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) to say they don’t carry the wattage of McQueen and Hoffman in their prime. Hunnam especially seems more GQ and less rough-hewn than his legendary predecessor, while Malek simply seems smaller and simply vulnerable with less depth than Hoffman. But they both do a commendable job of carrying their parts of the story.
In an incongruously fast-paced prelude to the rest of the tale, we meet Charriere as a dashing safecracker in Paris, planning for some unclear future when he’ll cash in and settle down with his nightclubbing girlfriend (Eve Hewson). Some business involving jewels stolen from a gangster leads to him being framed for a murder and sent to you know where. En route to his South American hell, he meets the rich, diminutive and soft counterfeiter Louis Dega (Malek), who is hiding a stash of cash on his, um, person, and is willing to pay Charriere to be his muscle and protect him in prison.
Thus begins a friendship of convenience, that, as we all know from the original, deepens with repeated stints in solitary (some, in Charriere’s case, lasting years), ill-fated escape attempts and determined efforts by prison authorities to separate them. It all circles around to a climactic escape attempt and a last prison stint on the notorious Devil’s Island.
Since he survived to write his memoirs, it isn’t a spoiler to note that Charriere’s eventual freedom is already branded on the brain, a counterpoint to the hopelessness we see onscreen. And as the movie passes the two-hour mark, it is reasonable to be impatient to see that uplifting turn of events. The effect (then and now) is that Papillon is a movie that repeatedly pulls the rug out from under the audience’s expectations.
Even as a reboot, it remains both scenically beautiful and an ordeal at the same time.
Papillon. Directed by Michael Noer. Starring Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek. Opens across Canada Friday, August 24.