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What a strange blast from the past, or parp from the past. One of the meaty bestseller sensations of the 70s, which became a Hollywood movie starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman – and co-written by no less a figure than Dalton Trumbo – has been effortfully revived. Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek now take the leads, playing the fearless prison escaper and his nerdy pal.
“Based on a true story” it says over the opening credits. Well, true-ish. These were the heavily embroidered reminiscences of French criminal Henri “Papillon” Charrière, nicknamed after his butterfly tattoo, who in 1931 was convicted in France of murdering a pimp – wrongly, he always maintained, a claim that has to be handled as carefully as everything else. He was sentenced to life at a brutal penal colony in French Guyana, and then moved to Devil’s Island.
After an extraordinarily daring escape, Charrière settled in Venezuela in 1945 and, in 1969, published his memoir, which sold massively to people who devoured it on the understanding that it was nonfiction. The book was subsequently revealed to be an embellished conflation of many others’ experiences, and this film coyly fudges its publishing history.
It really is a grisly, gamey tale, never entirely candid about its own homoeroticism, or about its later, sub-Gauguin fantasy of sexy concubinage, with demurely submissive young island women miraculously available when the escapers wash up in paradise. There is a bit of mediumcore prison-shower violence mixed with an almost boy’s-own type of derring-do, as the resourceful and ingenious prisoners get away by boat, like a lowlife version of the Kon-Tiki expedition.
Hunnam is Papillon, a clean-cut ordinary decent criminal who in postwar Paris is a safecracker, not involved in violence, and moreover on the verge of being persuaded to go straight by his beautiful girlfriend Nenette (Eve Hewson). But some envious creep working for gang boss Jean (Christopher Fairbank) fits Papillon up and soon Papi is on a slow boat to the prison island, chained up with all the other poor souls. It is there that he meets Dega (Rami Malek), a bespectacled, fastidious white-collar criminal, whose secret stash of cash means that he is a friend worth having. It’s not a very cute meet-cute, but soon a bromance develops and they even get an old-fashioned Butch-and-Sundance moment, deciding whether to jump off a cliff into the foaming surf.
Just as in the book, the memorable part of this story is its ripe black-comic business with “chargers”, containers with cash, cigarettes or other contraband that prisoners would conceal up their rectums. These fetishised objects encoded or deflected a nagging, unasked, unacknowledged question in Papillon: what did men in their physical prime do for all these years cooped up together without women? This film is a little bit more overt, but Papillon still looks like an old-school story, a yarn from the era of The Great Escape and Bridge on the River Kwai. And a recent film like A Prayer Before Dying, with its lethally fierce portrayals of prison life, makes this new Papillon look pretty exposed.
The “island woman” characters are another interesting point. In the original book, Papillon’s brief, Edenic stay with these eroticised characters was a vital part of its bestsellerdom. This movie downplays this, like the first film, and in some ways this bowdlerisation is why the new Papillon feels oddly of a different time, like Steven Spielberg’s de-sexified version of Peter Benchley’s Jaws.
However, Malek is watchable enough as the terrified but haughty and entitled Dega: a worthy successor to Hoffman in the role. His face is lean and pinched with hunger and fear, knowing that his glasses make him a magnet for violence but quite unable to see without them. Hunnam is confident and plausible in the title role, and he has to carry the long and harrowing scenes in solitary confinement, which took Papillon to the brink of insanity. But there is always something a bit bland about his performance, like a Channing Tatum without the dance moves.
The prison governor surveys the glowering inmates and announces acidly: “Keeping you is no benefit. Destroying you is no loss.” A nice line. There is no discernible benefit or loss at the end of this long drama.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Papillon review – prison-break remake is a long stretch | Crime films