Papillon is an effectively stark prison escape (and survival) adventure with solid performances, but only digs so deep into its themes and characters.
French convict-turned world famous writer Henri Charrière's memoirs get a substantially grittier (if not, per se, thematically richer) makeover with Danish filmmaker Michael Noer's grim drama-thriller, Papillon. The film's screenplay draws not only from Charrière's literary autobiographies Papillon and Banco, but also the Oscar-nominated 1973 Papillon movie adapted by Lorenzo Temple Jr. and Dalton Trumbo. In doing so, Noer and his screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski allow themselves greater creative freedom to put their own unique spin on Charrière's penal colony experiences (modern historians' doubts concerning Papillon's authenticity aside). The resulting film isn't the grand slam its creators were aiming for, yet it's a worthwhile retelling in its own right. Papillon is an effectively stark prison escape (and survival) adventure with solid performances, but only digs so deep into its themes and characters.
Charlie Hunnam stars in the film as Henri "Papillon" Charrière, who starts out as a youthful and confident safecracker living the life of the party with his girlfriend Nenette (Eve Hewson) in Paris circa 1931. However, when one of Henri's criminal employers learns that he lied about their transaction and kept more than he was promised of the profits, Henri finds himself falsely accused and quickly convicted of having committed murder. He is thereafter condemned to a one-way trip to the infamous Devil's Island penal colony in French Guiana, where he will spend the rest of his miserable life laboring under the supervision of the prison's remorseless overseer, Warden Barrot (Yorick van Wageningen).
On the journey across the sea to French Guiana, Henri strikes up an alliance with Louis Dega (Rami Malek): a somewhat eccentric and physically meager convicted counterfeiter who eventually agrees to provide Henri with the funds he will need to attempt an escape, in return for Henri's protection from the other prisoners. However, even with Louis' money in hand, Henri comes to realize that breaking out of the Devil's Island penal colony is even more treacherous and difficult than it seems at first glance. Nevertheless, with assistance from Louis and a few other inmates who are eager to make a run for it, like Celler (Roland Møller), Henri prepares to stage a most daring escape... assuming he can stay alive long enough to try, anyway.
Obvious surface-level differences aside, Papillon thematically compliments Guzikowski's script for Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners, in the sense that it examines the experience of being imprisoned from the perspective of the actual prisoners, rather than those who are "imprisoned" by holding others captive (a la Villeneuve's kidnapping drama). The theme of transcendence is also central to the proceedings here. Henri battles physical challenges throughout the film (be it when he's on the run or trying to stay fit while trapped in solitary confinement for years), yet it's his search for spiritual freedom that affords Papillon some substance, to go with the escalating stakes surrounding Henri's escape attempts (which provide the framework for the movie's three-act narrative). Ultimately, however, Papillon only skims the surfaces of these ideas in order to focus more on the visceral qualities of Henri's harrowing day to day life as a prisoner.
Noer certainly doesn't hold back when it comes to depicting the grim realities of Henri's penal colony life either, in turn delivering a film that's soaked in grime (visually) and leaves you feeling as though you've been immersed in the muck and sludge yourself. This come through as much thanks to the vérité cinematography from Hagen Bogdanski (The Lives of Others), which is raw and vivid in the way it captures every squalid detail, as it does in the scuzzy interiors from production designer Tom Meyer (Real Steel) and the washed-out historical prison uniforms by costume designer Bojana Nikitovic (Coriolanus). Papillon further delivers when it comes to brutal violence, serving up multiple savage prison brawls and the most vicious washroom fight this side of Eastern Promises. The film is pretty unrelenting in its mirthlessness, but for the most part that serves its narrative's purposes.
Hunnam and Malek likewise get put through the motions here as actors. The former delivers the more show-y performance, thanks to the sheer amount of weight that he sheds over the course of the film. However, the changes in Hunnam's manner (as he goes from cocksure criminal to frail older man yearning for a free life of peace and quiet) are more emotionally compelling than his physical transformation as Henri. Malek as Louis undergoes no such dramatic alteration in terms of his physical appearance, but he manages to express his character's development - from upper-class crook unprepared for the grisly realities of prison life to a far less arrogant survivalist - in other, more subtle ways. Most of the supporting characters and their relationships to Henri and Louis are painted in broad strokes by comparison (in particular, that of Henri and Warden Barrot), but the film's bare-bones approach typically succeeds in getting to the essence of these dynamics, without dragging out the movie's runtime to an unnecessarily hefty length.
Because Papillon streamlines so much of its narrative and characters, its attempts at achieving a deeper meaning tend to fall a bit short. Similarly, the film's exploration of the failures of the penal system and the dehumanizing process of being incarcerated in this fashion are intriguing, but the film never fully wrestles with their political implications. For the most part, though, Papillon is a lean, mean, stripped-down prison drama that does a good job of showing how Henri is transformed by his experiences, physically and mentally. Unfortunately, it has less success in examining Louis' evolution as a character and doesn't flesh out his "bromance" with Henri enough to have quite the emotional impact that was intended (despite Hunnam and Malek's fine performances).
This also explains why Papillon is hitting theaters in late August, nearly a year after it premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. It's a respectable historical adventure, but isn't strong enough to compete with the awards season contenders on the horizon and wouldn't have stood out next to the indie film festival hits that debuted earlier this summer. Papillon is also (understandably) probably too gruesome for some filmgoers' tastes, save for those who are curious to learn more about Henri's story and/or are fans of Hunnam and Malek's previous work. That said: if you are game to watch a movie that may leave you feeling like you've also spent years in a penal colony (in a, er, good way), then this one is worth checking out.
Papillon is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 133 minutes long and is rated R for violence including bloody images, language, nudity, and some sexual material.
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- Papillon (2018) release date: Aug 24, 2018