Henri Charrière was a pioneer in the literary subgenre of mostly-true-at-least-in-spirit memoirs. He was the right man to kick off the publishing trend, because his account of his years imprisoned in a French Guyana penal colony had plenty of adventure. Readers could also tell he had lived through some serious hardships, so they apparently forgave his alleged liberties with the strict veracity. It is time to revisit the sunny climate and friendly staff of Devil’s Island in Michael Noer’s remake of Papillon (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
Charrière, a.k.a, “Papillon, because of his butterfly tattoo (but hopefully you knew that already) is guilty of plenty, but not the murder that gets him sentenced to the penal colony. That was his story and he stuck to it. Escaping the remote prison camp would be an arduous and expensive proposition, but he finds a potential financial benefactor in fellow prisoner Louis Dega, the forger. Dega is convinced his wife will soon facilitate his release, but he needs Charrière to keep him alive during the short term. In return, Dega will finance his escape plan with the money he has stashed away in an uncomfortable place where prisoners often hide things.
Of course, neither Charrière or Dega are going anywhere, anytime soon. Years will pass, including several the rebellious Charrière spends in mind-numbing, spirit-breaking solitary confinement. However, an unlikely friendship will develop between the athletic thief and the nebbish white collar criminal.
Noer’s Papillon demonstrates one of the dangers of remaking an enduringly popular film like Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1973 original. Frankly, screenwriter Adam Guzikowski is scrupulously faithful to the previous script, so it is hard to avoid asking, why bother? On the other hand, any changes he might have made would have had to be brilliant to warrant departing from the story we think we know. Arguably, the only way a remake can win is when the earlier film departed significantly from the source material, allowing it to return to the real story. Yet, in this case, the truth of Charrière’s story is admittedly debatable, so it is difficult to fall back on that justification.
Still, for Millennials who have never heard of Papillon, Steve McQueen, or Dustin Hoffman, Noer’s take is undeniably well-crafted and watchable. He makes us feel the heat and humidity—and we even start to imagine the lovely smells. Charlie Hunnam is competent as Charrière, but though his shoulders are broader than McQueen’s, he still seems less manly by comparison. As Dega, Rami Malik practically melts on screen, perhaps even managing to outdo Hoffman when it comes to perspiration. Tommy Flanagan, Ella Fitzgerald’s greatest accompanist, passed away in 2001, so there is no possible way he could have played “Masked Breton,” but Yorick van Wageningen makes quite a sinister martinet as Warden Barrot.
Clearly, Michael Noer has an affinity for prison life, judging from Papillon and the Danish prison film R, his last release to have American distribution. He definitely transports viewers to Guyana in the moment, but afterward, you still have to wonder why they made such considerable effort. However, it serves as a somewhat needed reminder of the great Schaffner, who seems long overdue for a career retrospective (which would include films like The Planet of the Apes, Patton, and The Boys from Brazil). Recommended for those who haven’t seen the original, the new Papillon opens this Friday (8/24) in New York, at the Cinepolis Chelsea.