Directed by Michael Noer.
Starring Charlie Hunnam, Rami Malek, Roland Møller, Michael Socha, Christopher Fairbank, Tommy Flanagan, Eve Hewson, Brian Vernel, Ian Beattie, Nick Kent, Joel Basman, Andre Flynn, Joe David Walters, Antonio de la Cruz, Luke Peros, and Yorick van Wageningen.
A prisoner detained on a remote island plots his escape. A remake of the 1973 film ‘Papillon‘.
Papillion opens with a sequence set in the bustling city of 1930s Paris, allowing the highly underrated Charlie Hunnam (aside from making a name for himself spearheading the popular Sons of Anarchy series, the performer definitely deserved more awards consideration and recognition than received for his stunning work on The Lost City of Z) to play up many of his strengths as an actor; he’s a rebellious hustler, suave with the ladies, and exudes charm both in good looks and personality. Within mere minutes, Henri “Papillon” Charrière is separated from his carefree lifestyle and beautiful girlfriend and tossed onto a remote island prison with the reason being framed for the murder of a pimp, which audiences know is bogus. With that said, much like the latter of the aforementioned films (and the most recent on his resume), Charlie Hunnam is forced to draw inspiration for his portrayal of this real-life figure not just from history and memoirs, but on a performance level has to dive into psychological aspects, most notably the struggle to maintain one sanity.
It’s only appropriate that the actor is joined by another television megastar, Rami Malek (currently most known for the series Mr. Robot but should likely garner much more attention from his role later in the year portraying Queen frontman Freddie Mercury), serving as the slender, far more easier to intimidate and way less likelier to survive such relentlessly punishing conditions, millionaire counterfeiter Louis Dega. Putting his formidable body strength and fearless bravado to good use, Papillion offers a protection service to Louis in exchange for his finances (he is quite intelligent and bold when it comes to smuggling around cash, which, let’s face it, is worth even more in prison than in the outside world) to put towards hatching an escape plan, preferably by boat.
Actually, make that multiple plans. Things never really go quite as expected for the duo (who share great chemistry with one another in what is essentially a business arrangement turned prison bromance), landing themselves in more unforgiving areas of the island that also come with even stricter circumstances. There’s a segment where Papillion is isolated away in a claustrophobic room shrouded in darkness for the unimaginably lengthy duration of two years, which makes use of everything from hallucinations to Charlie Hunnam visibly beginning to suffer mental deterioration (there’s an unsettling shot of him cackling and smiling with a black eye while biting into some fruit, slouched on the ground up against the door). And it’s moments like this that sell Papillon beyond functioning solely as a macho vehicle for some gritty and brutal violence.
Without spoiling too much, further into Papillion, the titular protagonist must endure an even longer sentence of punishment. Unfortunately, that one doesn’t have the same convincing commitment to showcasing the grueling passage of time. However, it’s not the plentiful hand-to-hand combat (one especially memorable sequence involves a number of actors, Hunnam and Malek included, completely nude and in the scuffle of their lives) that takes away from some of the emotional resonance. Now, I’m fully aware many moviegoers are tired of longer films, and under the direction of Danish filmmaker Michael Noer this version of Papillion (based on both his actual memoirs and the script for the 1973 film from the legendary Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr.) does clock in, admittedly still well over two hours, but also 15 minutes shorter. Perhaps some of the first act could be trimmed down, but what this means is that by the time Papillion reaches Devil’s Island, the most infamous area of this inhumane and torturous hellhole prison island, it doesn’t feel half as bad compared to everything else he has gone through when in reality it probably should. If anything, the climax is somewhat anti-climatic is still somewhat liberating. In other words, this is a rare film that should simply be as long as it needs to be to properly tell the story.
Regardless, this is still a competently crafted and technically sound experience. While the visuals are fairly down and dirty, the environments are often breathtaking and also contain sound mixing ensuring that insects in the background can be heard. You don’t want to feel like you there, but you do, and that’s an accomplishment on the part of the photography team. Even so, the dynamic between Papillion and Louis does evolve and grow into a friendship based on the numerous hardships they face together, but it does feel rushed in places, not quite living up to the emotional heft the material demands.
Even with its flaws, Papillon registers as enjoyable disposable entertainment just for having two modern-day staples of outstanding television joining forces in the same film. As he should, Charlie Hunnam gets the flashier role, but it’s difficult to not feel that the filmmakers should have leaned even further into the psychological thriller aspects. Papillon is at its best when Hunnam is pretending to be delirious for the guards whilst simultaneously plotting his escape with Louis; the centerpiece of the movie is exciting, but the remaining 45 minutes can never regain that momentum and sense of exhilaration.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com