Director: Michael Noer
Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Rami Malek, Yorick Can Wagenhingen, Roland Møller
RunTime: 2 hrs 13 mins
Rating: M18 (Some Nudity & Violence)
Released By: Golden Village Pictures
Official Website: https://bleeckerstreetmedia.com/papillon
Opening Day: 30 August 2018
Synopsis: Based on the international best-selling autobiographic books "Papillon" and "Banco", PAPILLON follows the epic story of Henri Papillon Charrire (Charlie Hunnam), a safecracker from the Parisian underworld who is framed for murder and condemned to life in the notorious penal colony on Devils Island. Determined to regain his freedom, Papillon forms an unlikely alliance with quirky convicted counterfeiter Louis Dega (Rami Malek), who in exchange for protection, agrees to finance Papillons escape.
As natural as it may be to compare ‘Papillon’ with the 1973 hit that starred Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, such legacy is somewhat irrelevant for the generations since then which have grown up without ever having heard, let alone seen, that movie. So first things first, this review would not be written with that historical baggage in mind or at the back of mind, and with that, we’re glad to say Danish director Michael Noer’s adaptation of the Frenchman Henri Charrière's supposedly true account of his imprisonment in French Guiana and Devil's Island is a captivating watch from start to finish. It is as much about our titular protagonist’s indefatigable determination to be free, as it is about the honor between two thieves that grows into trust, as it is about the cruelty of the penal colony in French Guiana, and therefore alternately riveting, sobering and rousing.
So nicknamed for the butterfly tattoo on his chest, Henri ‘Papillon’ Charrière (Charlie Hunnam) was a safecracker in 1931 Paris who found himself framed for the murder of a pimp. A couple of early scenes establish his underground high life, as well as his dream of leaving the criminal world behind for the good life with his girlfriend Nenette (Eve Hewson), before he is handed a life sentence and banished off the coast of South America. En route, Henri meets the timid currency forger Louis Dega (Rami Malek) and offers him a business proposition: ‘pay for my escape and I’ll protect you’. While reluctant at first, Dega takes up the offer after his bodyguard has his insides slit open on the very first evening out at sea. Notwithstanding, Dega doesn’t take well to the brutal environment, where as the sadistic Warden Barrot (a terrific Yorick Van Wageningen) tells every batch of new inmates, fleeing will result in starving in the forest, being eaten by sharks at sea, or recapture and an even longer and worse sentence.
Drawing from Henri’s bestselling 1969 autobiography, writer Aaron Guzikowski employs the traditional three-act structure to firstly develop the bond between Henri and Dega, secondly demonstrate Henri’s commitment to that bond as well as his willpower, and thirdly celebrate the power of hope and perseverance. Each act is gripping in its own right – the first in how an ordinary person like Dega would react and evolve in the face of such harsh circumstances, culminating in a shocking public beheading intended as deterrence for those planning to escape; the second in how years of solitary confinement enforced in silence and meagre rations can bring a person, even one as strong as Henri, to his physical and mental limits; and the last in the nuts and bolts of how Henri and Dega collaborate with two other prisoners (Roland Moller and Joel Bassman) to scheme an elaborate flight that literally doesn’t prove to be as smooth-sailing as our characters think it would.
Whereas other directors might have chosen a grittier telling in order to portray a palpable sense of dread and hopelessness, Noer chooses to underscore the warmth in the brotherhood forged between Henri and Dega. Oh yes, it is their relationship which takes centre stage, and not one that is transactional, opportunistic or convenient mind you, but one which is manifested in tests of loyalty, integrity and conviction. It is because of this emphasis that the chemistry between Hunnam and Malek emerges as one of the film’s best elements. Both actors are fine in their own right and give their respective characters everything they’ve got, but together, their display of humanity amidst adversity is winning and even uplifting.
Like we said, we don’t believe in getting drawn into comparisons between this film and its predecessor some four decades ago; suffice to say that Noer’s ‘Papillon’ more than stands on its own as a rain-soaked, mud-splattered and bone-crunching prison escape story that is harrowing and heart-breaking to watch. Whether as a pure action-suspense saga or as a celebration of the indomitable human spirit, this film cuts as sharply both ways, and does so by constantly keeping an intimate focus on its two key characters. As much as these penal colonies are a thing of the past, the black-and-white reels at the end of the film further reinforce how their ramifications are no less significant and real, so in its titular context, let’s just say ‘Papillon’ is a true-to-life tale that truly takes flight.
(Genuinely and intimately harrowing, riveting and rousing, this true-to-life prison escape story is both a gripping action-suspense saga and an uplifting celebration of the human spirit)
Review by Gabriel Chong