I know the 1973 film is a classic, I get it, I KNOW. But I can’t bring that prior knowledge to this review! I can’t make comparisons between this new version of Papillon, starring my husbands Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek, with that work! What I will say is that this adaptation is … fine. The performances are fine. The pacing is fine. The direction is fine. It’s all fine. But was a remake really necessary if there isn’t anything spectacular about it?
Papillon begins its story with Henri “Papillon” Charrière (Hunnam)—nicknamed “Butterfly” for the tattoo on his chest, and what a chest, you guys—who in 1931 is living the good life in jazzy, beautiful, Moulin Rouge-era Paris. A thief and safecracker who steals diamonds with slight-of-hand tricks, he’s planning a future with his girlfriend Nanette (Eve Hewson), promising her that within six months he’ll have enough money for them to build something permanent together. But suddenly he’s framed for murder and sentenced to a life sentence on Devil’s Island, telling Nanette that he is going “to concentrate on breaking out” before he’s marched through the streets to the docks.
It’s during that walk that he meets the wealthy counterfeiter Louis Dega (Malek), imprisoned for selling fake defense bonds, who is convinced that his wife and lawyer will secure his freedom. “Won’t last long,” someone comments of Dega, and yet an idea comes to Henri: What if Dega bankrolled his breakout? Henri would protect him while on Devil’s Island, and Dega would pay for whatever resources needed to get out of the penal colony, and the partnership could be mutually beneficial—especially in a hellscape like Devil’s Island.
Because it is nightmarish, a place permeated with despair and hopelessness, a jungle island with sharks in the sea and starvation on land. When they arrive, the warden (Yorick van Wageningen, making me think, “Were we too hard on David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”?) comes out of a decaying old palace in his white linen suit, an image of false cleanliness in this filthy, awful place, to announce “You are the property of the penal administration of French Guinea,” and the men are meant to serve their sentences doing hard labor on the island, building roads, pushing gigantic carts full of rocks, and destroying their bodies and their minds.
“Feel free to try whenever you like, we’ll be happy to shoot you,” the warden says of escape attempts, and the consequences are dire: two years in solitary confinement for a first attempt, five years in solitary for a second attempt, and then finally a lifetime on the island for a third attempt. “Forget France!” he yells; no one has ever made it out.
Henri, of course, thinks he’ll be the first, and so Papillon—based on Charrière’s sort-of fictionalized memoirs Papillon and Banco—follows his attempts to leave Devil’s Island and resume his life. But like so many films about imprisonment, Papillon needs to find ways to keep the story engaging while its characters are mostly siloed, and that’s where the film infrequently makes an impact. Director Michael Noer creates a few moments that are starkly devastating and memorable (the look of joy on Henri’s face when he discovers a coconut in his rations, a pool of blood spreading out from underneath a guard’s body, and the bleak darkness of a solitary-confinement cell), but the movie can’t maintain a consistent pace for 137 minutes, and the repetitive threats of violence and rape become decreasingly impactful.
Hunnam is, as always, full of swagger, but his particular sort of masculinity (which, I admit, I am very sexually into) feels anachronistic for this time period, and his character doesn’t spend enough time with Malek’s for Henri and Dega to really seem as if they share a believable friendship. They each have noticeable transformations (Hunnam’s Henri becomes worryingly gaunt during his imprisonment, while Malek’s Dega gets even more wild-eyed), but their bond isn’t developed, and without that strong emotional center or a unique visual language for communicating their despair, Papillon just kind of meanders.
But you know what, thank you for reading! You deserve a reward. Here! Let us objectify Charlie Hunnam together!
Shave that thing off your face and we can talk, boo.
Oh, and I would never deprive you of Rami. Let’s objectify him too!
A step forward for the female gaze, right here.
Image sources (in order of posting): Bleecker Street, Bleecker Street, Bleecker Street