Hot Take: Having never seen the original and with nothing to compare it to, Papillon was powerful and compelling and, considering most of the negative reviews blame comparisons to the (in their opinion) more superior 1973 version, it makes sense I don’t have the same complaints.
The original version of Papillon has been on my list of films to see since when it was the only version of Papillon. Both versions are based on the autobiography by Henri Charriere, known as Papillon due to the butterfly tattoo on his chest. Both stories detail the brutal tale which starts with the Henri’s claim he was framed for murder and sent to life in prison at a penal colony in French Guiana and follows Papillon’s numerous attempts to escape imprisonment. The original features Steve McQueen as French safecracker Papillon and Dustin Hoffman as Louis Dega, the rich forger Papillon vows to protect in exchange for financial backing of his escape attempts with whom he forms a friendship over the course of their time in prison. The update puts Charlie Hunnam in the titular role with Rami Malek in the role of Dega. Director Michael Noer’s take on the film is a dark, uncompromising re-telling of Papillon’s life in prison which was actually cut from an original cut of 3 and a half hours down to 2 hours and 20 minutes. Noer makes every attempt to put the viewer in the shoes of the prisoners and the more than intimate re-telling is unnerving at times and cuts no corners with the graphic nature of almost everything one might go through in prison.
Pulling no punches, the film starts with Papillon (Hunnam) as a free man in Paris during his life as a safecracker. After a big heist, he can’t help to skim a little off the top which may have led to a frame up that pins Papillon for murder and sends him to prison for life. Even before arriving, he gets a lay of the land and already begins planning his escape. His first prison friend, Julot (Michael Socha), clues him in that he’ll need money if he wants to escape and points out the wealthy Louis Dega (Malek) as a potential source of cash. Immediately, Papillon offers Dega protection in exchange for funding of his escape. Off the boat (where Julot injures himself to land in the hospital), the rules are laid out by the warden (Yorick van Wageningen): Commit murder and face the guillotine, escape once and get caught and land in solitary for 2 years, escape again and get caught and it’s 5 more years in solitary followed by a trip to Devil’s Island for the rest of your prison stay. That doesn’t deter Papillon who continues to plot his escape and that sets the stage for the rest of the film.
Even without the comparisons to the original, it’s hard to call the update of Papillon original especially considering how influential the 1973 film was or how saturated the genre of prison escape films and television happen to be. We’re obviously fascinated by the topic enough to continue to seek out prison stories as entertainment. (Fox got 5 seasons out of Prison Break and MSNBC built Sunday programming around prison doc Lockup which aired 237 episodes in addition to the countless prison films over the years.) Physically, you can tell Hunnam put himself through the ringer to perform the role and the film being shot sequentially helped with capturing the emotion as the actors were able to live the story as they performed it. (In fairness, Hunnam’s rugged good looks and impressive physique still glean through any superficial hardship.) Malek gives a solid performance as Dega though the choice of vocal affect to assumedly portray Dega’s combination of smugness and meekness. In the end, the new Papillon provides a smart, stylishly dark and humbling viewing experience that captures Papillon’s imprisonment and attempted escapes with the gravitas it deserves.
It’s important to repeat that this by now means an endorsement of the latest Papillon over the original. Fortunately, there’s nothing for this reviewer to compare it to having not seen the original yet. The latest though is a competent depiction of the unbearable suffering as detailed in Charriere’s memoirs published in 1969 independent of how well the original captured it. Maybe this update is unnecessary but there’s plenty who haven’t had an opportunity to see the original and this update is strong enough to stand on its own.
You love prison movies and haven’t seen the original.
You’ve seen the original and are hypersensitive to remakes and reboots.