The new film version of “Papillon,” based on Henri Charriere’s 1969 best-seller and its 1973 sequel, “Banco,” is rather better than the previous screen adaptation starring Steve McQueen (mouth closed) and Dustin Hoffman (mouth agape). For some that’ll be heresy. For others, it’s a diffident Gallic shrug of a recommendation.
The new “Papillon” directed by Danish documentary and feature filmmaker Michael Noer covers more ground chronologically than the previous one, which is a welcome change. In Aaron Guzikowski’s script we meet the dashing safecracker nicknamed Papillon (Butterfly) breezing through his merry life in the Montmartre section of Paris, 1931. Life is good and Charlie Hunnam, who plays Papillon, enjoys himself to the fullest, in or out of the bed of his lover portrayed by Eve Hewson.
Abruptly Papillon’s arrested and convicted for a murder he didn’t commit, and he is flung into the cesspool of the French penal system shortly afterward. Life imprisonment in French Guiana, on the coast of South America, sends Papillon into a series of rescue attempts. Along with another convict, counterfeiter Louis Dega (Rami Malek, trying as hard as possible not to “do” Dustin Hoffman), Papi eventually finds himself on the notorious Devil’s Island, from which no man has ever escaped.
Spanning 1931 to 1945, the new “Papillon” was filmed in Serbia and on Malta. Its early scenes of the Moulin Rouge heyday are pure backlot artifice, later phasing into director Noer’s penchant for handheld immediacy, getting as close as possible to shower brawls, throat-slittings, grimy sexual exploitations and Papillon’s years in solitary.
The film dutifully hits the highlights of the escape attempts. Hunnam is the movie’s focal point as well as its lust object, box office appeal and moral center; he’s a good-guy criminal, who never hurt a fly until the sadistic French penal system grabbed hold of him. Dega, a coward and a weakling, needs his friend’s protection. In exchange, he bankrolls the various bribes and payoffs needed to make a successful break from Devil’s Island, his money tucked safely away in his posterior.
In ’73, “Papillon” got the plodding Important Motion Picture treatment; this time, the results are leaner, less sardonic (wiseacre William Goldman did uncredited rewrites on the McQueen-Hoffman film) but rarely exciting, despite the more explicit violence and sexuality. Malek’s Dega keeps his voice to a flat register, never quite making the performance his own. Hunnam’s reliably charismatic in suffering and in joy, but with most of the political and wartime context shaved off the story, once again, we’re left with the basics.
What Charriere endured, and finally left behind, has already proven irresistible to a global audience. This retelling — prettily assembled, a little dull — gives that audience little that’s truly new.
Starring Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek. Directed by Michael Noer.
Rated R for violence including bloody images, language, nudity, and some sexual material. Check listing for theaters. 2 hours, 13 minutes.
Bottom line: The retelling hasn’t given much that’s truly new
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