With so much compelling true-life source material to draw from, it’s a shame that Papillon isn’t more emotionally involving.
That criticism of the current adventure based on the remarkable story of Henri Charriere also applies to a lesser degree to the previous star-studded biopic of the same name from 1973.
Both projects dutifully capture the details of its subject’s horrific treatment in a remote 1930s French penal colony, yet generally lack the deeper resonance such a story should spark.
Henri (Charlie Hunnam), a notorious safecracker with the nickname “Papillon” referencing a butterfly tattoo on his chest, is framed for murder and given a life sentence at a penitentiary in French Guiana supervised by a sadistic warden (Yorick van Wageningen).
He cautiously befriends Louis (Rami Malek), a wealthy counterfeiter who hopes his wife can use social connections back in Paris to free him. Henri knows that’s never going to happen, so he enlists Louis to bankroll an eventual escape plot for both of them.
Both men remain hopeful and loyal to their partnership during the hardships that follow, including hard labor in the South American jungle and bloody episodes of physical and psychological torture at the hands of the prison staff.
Hunnam bolsters the film with a committed performance that requires both a physical transformation as well as the dexterity to convey emotion through facial expressions and body language during the sequences in which dialogue is sparse.
The screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski (Prisoners) apparently is drawn both from Charriere’s memoir and from the script of the original film, co-written by Dalton Trumbo. It doesn’t make many significant changes or updates from the source material, nor does it offer much additional thematic depth or historical context.
It’s an ambitious English-language debut for Danish director Michael Noer (Key House Mirror), who depicts the harsh setting with gritty visual flair. However, it struggles with pacing and in finding the most significant details in Charriere’s story. The result flattens the suspense and decreases the dramatic impact, even if an extended sequence set in solitary confinement is harrowing.
The original Papillon was a box-office hit although mediocre considering the talent involved, including stars Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. By comparison, this remake seems mostly unnecessary, a well-crafted epic that ultimately feels more exhausting than exciting.