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Review: Papillion (2018)

Papillion (2018)

Directed by: Michael Noer

Premise: A remake of the 1973 film based on the books by Henri Charrière. A thief wrongly convicted of murder (Charlie Hunnam) is sent to the penal colony in French Guiana. He befriends a white collar criminal (Rami Malek) and together they plot an escape.

What Works: The 2018 version of Papillion has a vivid sense of place. Most of the story is set in the French Guiana penitentiary and the jungle that surrounded it. The filmmakers capture the grit and discomfort of the setting. The jungle feels muddy and hot and the solitary confinement sequences convey the loneliness and hunger of a man being starved, emotionally and physically, by his captors. The point of Papillion is the barbarity of the French Guiana prison and how that oppression contrasts with the title character’s resilience. The extent to which this version of Papillion succeeds is largely due to its cinematic style but also to its lead actors. Charlie Hunnam plays the title role of Papillion as a thief wrongly convicted of murder. Hunnam’s character is put through extraordinary trials and Hunnam captures the pain and desperation of this man but also his will to live and his hope for freedom. Hunnam is paired with Rami Malek as Dega, a well-financed white collar criminal who befriends Papillion and underwrites his escape attempts. The friendship between Papillion and Dega is central to the story, starting as a relationship of convenience and gradually becoming something more. Hunnam and Malek gage their performances appropriately and their mutual respect is convincing.

What Doesn’t: The only justification for remaking a film is to do it better or at least do it differently. The 2018 version of Papillion doesn’t really do that. This is evidenced in the writing credits which specifically recognize the script from the 1973 film written by Dalton Tumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr. The Trumbo and Semple script was based on Henri Charrière’s books but the new film is almost entirely based upon the plot and characters of the 1973 picture. The filmmakers made no effort to find a new angle on this material and the new bits that they have added don’t contribute much to the story. The focus on Papillion’s pre-incarceration life and his framing for murder are mostly unnecessary and don’t figure back into the plot. The escape attempts ought to benefit from the action-oriented filmmaking approach but they aren’t very rousing. The 2018 version of Papillion has all the elements of a contemporary feature but this is fundamentally the same story and it isn’t told any better than the 1973 film. As a result, the 2018 version of Papillion is redundant.
Bottom Line: The remake of Papillion is a competent movie with some good performances. But it’s also the sort of remake that only exists to capitalize on a preexisting title. Viewers would do just as well seeking out the 1973 film and moviegoers who’ve already seen it aren’t likely to get anything new out of the 2018 version.

Episode: #714 (September 2, 2018)