Never having seen the original version of Papillon, I think that is actually a plus in that I am unencumbered by any prejudice and can see the remake of the Steve McQueen/Dustin Hoffman original without any burdens about how it compares to the original.
Sadly, despite its best efforts, this version of Papillon cannot erase the original despite actually being shorter than the original and unknown to this viewer.
Henri Charrière (Charlie Hunnam), nicknamed 'Papillon' due to the butterfly tattoo at the base of his neck ('papillon' being French for 'butterfly') is a petty thief in 1931 Paris, a man-about-town enjoying something of a good life. One day, however, he is framed for murder for dubious reasons.
It could be because his employer discovered he was holding out on him, or the criminal gang he was with needed a patsy for the death of someone, or some kind of jealousy due to his newest girlfriend. Anyway, in short order he is sent off to French Guyana to serve his sentence.
Among those going to the penal colony is Louis Dega (Rami Malek), a forger who is known to have much money. Papillon offers a deal: he will be his unofficial bodyguard if Dega will finance his escape. At first, he declines the offer but after another inmate is killed before arriving he agrees.
Once at the jungle prison, Papillon continues to plot his escape, but he takes his chances almost haphazardly when he and Dega are ordered to take the body of another prisoner who was guillotined for killing a guard in his own escape attempt.
Since Papillon didn't end up killing the guard, eh is only sent to solitary for two years. This experience drives him almost to the point of madness, especially after he refuses to name the source of coconuts to his measly rations.
Once out, Papillon again meets with Dega and two others to make another escape attempt. This almost succeeds in that they do get off the island and appear to find refuge among natives and the nuns who work with them. However, that too falls apart and they are retaken.
Now, after five years of solitary, Papillon is sent to Devil's Island, where once again he sees Dega who was sent there directly. Still, Papillon dreams of escaping. He manages to do so, but without Dega going this time.
Moving to 1969, Papillon slips into France where he is still a wanted criminal to offer up his memoirs of his time in the French penal system, insisting it must be published in France.
Again, despite not having seen the original Papillon, I find that there is no real reason to have this version, let alone thinking that it will supplant the original.
I think part of the reason Papillon falters is that we get some very curious decisions by director Michael Noer. First, there is a very odd set of editing decisions early on in his pre-prison time when we shift between the night before and the day of his arrest.
It jumps back and forth between them in a very disjointed manner, as if they were trying to be a bit too artistic.
Another element is that there never seemed to be a genuine friendship between Papillon and Dega. Despite the film's best efforts, they never seemed to actually like each other, let alone make so many sacrifices for each other. It isn't as if they hated each other, but the relationship between Papillon and Dega never moved above a purely business one, even when the film wanted to make it a friendship.
Other curious elements were with the characters. I can go with the idea that Papillon's grip on sanity would lead him to imagine Dega as a mime, but I did not understand why Malek was asked or decided to adopt a very deep, almost hoarse/froggy voice that sounded so unnatural. Even though I can't remember seeing Malek in anything, this voice seemed so strange that it felt more an actory affectation than an authentic person.
Granted, Papillon still seems to delight in showing Hunnam's chiseled physique and he can still come across as boring and emotionalless, but this is probably a much better performance than in such clunkers as King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.
The actual escape with the four men was actually well-done and suspenseful, so that is a plus.
It's unfortunate then that so often the film goes into long stretches of tedium while jumping past things that might have livened things up. For example, the escapees find themselves with an impending storm that causes one of them to die. Just before the storm hits, we jump to a waking Papillon, as if their surviving this squall was of no interest to anyone.
Papillon, at least this version, feels like a bit of a slog to sit through, as if we were there for every single year of his sentence. At times bordering on riffing on other films (a few scenes and bits of dialogue, intentionally or not, reminded me of Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid), I think this remake won't be held with the same appreciation as the original.
Then again, anyone attempting to equal Steve McQueen in any of his roles is going to have a very hard time of it.
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