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Based on the international best-selling autobiographical books "Papillon" and "Banco," this action-packed true story follows the epic life of Henri "Papillon" Charrière (Charlie Hunnam), a safecracker from the Parisian underworld who is framed for murder and condemned to life in the notorious penal colony on Devil's 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 Papillon's escape. This film is a thrilling adventure and a powerful portrait of the resilience of the human spirit, even in the face of utter inhumanity.
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As in the original version, “Papillon” details Charriere’s quest for freedom during his incarceration in the hellish penal colony on French Guiana, on the northeastern coast of South America.
A safecracker and thief operating in Paris during the early 1930s and nicknamed “Papillon” for the tattoo on his chest--”Papillon” is the French word for “butterfly”--Charriere earns the enmity of an underworld colleague after swindling him in a business deal. As revenge, the colleague frames Charriere for a murder he did not commit, knowing the murder will earn Charriere a life sentence in the penal colony.
“Papillon” turns out to be a serviceable action adventure picture, uninspired but competent, interesting rather than engrossing. Filmed on locations around Europe including Montenegro, Malta, and Belgrade, Serbia, the picture begins with a colorful recreation of Paris in 1931, a stylish, swirling kaleidoscope of pastel neons reminiscent of a cross between “Moulin Rouge” and “Guy and Dolls.” The early scenes stand in stark contrast to the balance of the picture, set in the steaming, stinking jungles of Guiana.
As Charriere, actor Charlie Hunnam displays a hunky countenance and husky voice speaking in American tones reminiscent of Nicolas Cage, using an American accent distinct from the cockney inflections he used in the title role of last year’s “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.” While watching “Papillon” it’s easy to imagine the American Channing Tatum in the role, because the resemblance between the two actors is so marked and pronounced.
The penal colony in Guiana is unsurprisingly presented as a living hell on earth---dank, hot, muddy, but with a thriving economy among prisoners. Cash changes hands frequently to purchase a myriad of products and services, although the necessary absence of wallets results in an awkward, messy, and vastly unsanitary means of accessing one’s financial resources. It’s not fun to imagine how they make change.
When Charriere is apprehended after his first escape attempt, he’s tossed into the solitary confinement section of the prison. Although intended as a means of punishment, solitary confinement actually looks pretty good in comparison with the rest of the establishment: Relatively clean and airy, well-lighted private quarters where Charriere is not compelled to spend nights sleeping in filth chained to 120 or so hostile roommates. After a while he even begins to hallucinate nocturnal visits from his comely girlfriend, back home in Paris.
In the role of the myopic counterfeiter Louis Dega, played by Dustin Hoffman in the 1973 picture, Egyptian-American actor Rami Malek displays a rabbity countenance--wiry, intense, eyes popping behind owlish glasses. It’s not a comfortable characterization, but the actor does eventually get us past memories of Hoffman’s scholarly befuddlement. It’ll be interesting to see Malek as the flamboyant entertainer Freddie Mercury in November’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” because the two roles couldn’t be more different.
Unfortunately detracting from the movie is the hyperkinetic photography by Hagen Bogdanski, particularly throughout the picture’s first hour or so. The constant herky-jerky movement of the camera renders various plot details difficult to see clearly, although the filmmakers slow the movement down enough that we can see every grisly detail of one unfortunate prisoner’s execution by guillotine.
“Papillion” is a movie which probably shouldn’t have been made: Although the filmmakers are somewhat coy about revealing the actual amount of the budget, it’s plainly an expensive production, as wel l as unnecessary one, since our memories of the 1973 Steve McQueen version remain so vivid.
But even fans of the original 1973 film--and there are quite a few--have to admit that in the new version Hunnam and company add nuance and depth to characters where McQueen and Hoffman did not. Although both films are vastly unpleasant endurance tests, the earlier version remains the definitive film rendition of Charriere’s memoirs, while the new version sort of colors the story in around the edges, and provides context both historical and emotional. Whether or not that context is necessary is a matter of taste.
In the end, beyond the blood and the grime, the horrors and the outrages, “Papillon” is a story of patience, persistence, and endurance. We end up feeling that Charriere’s early attempts at escape are unsuccessful because he’s unworthy of freedom, needing to temper his impulsive nature with maturity, experience, and wisdom before he can fully deserve or appreciate freedom. That’s not a bad lesson. Oh, and crime doesn’t pay.
At 133 minutes, “Papillon” takes a while to get where it’s going, long enough that eventually the audience feels almost as if they’ve been sent to Devil’s Island for a stretch along with Papillon and Dega and the others. But it’s a worthwhile journey for discriminating viewers.
Placed in limited release on August 24 to just 544 theaters across the US, “Papillon” earned an unimpressive $1.2 million during its opening weekend. The picture has not generated enough enthusiasm among either critics or audiences for distributor Bleeker Street Films to open the picture into a wider pattern, so expect an early DVD and Blu-ray release.
“Papillon” is rated R for violence, bloody images, language, nudity, and some material of a sexual nature.
Based on a mostly true story: Papillon was adapted from a memoir written by Charrière first released in France back in 1969.
It tells the story of French convict Henri Charrière (Charlie Hunnam), nicknamed "Papillon", who was imprisoned in 1933 and escaped in 1941 with the help of another convict, counterfeiter Louis Dega (Rami Malek).
In this one Interpretation on scene that really struck me was near the end where being alone and choosing where your Journey starts and finishes. It was one of sadness and Compassion. I highly suggest this version as a compliment to the Original.
Guide: F-word. Brief sex. Nudity.