Papillon a power metaphor for troubled times
When it comes to movie remakes, I’ve been of the mind that perhaps only bad films should be redone, or those that could be retold to reflect modern societal issues. The former is never attempted as executives play it safe by choosing movies that were done well the first time around and are thus a known quantity. So it came as no surprise when the remake of Papillon was announced, as this seminal prison movie is a certified classic of the 1970s that contains a compelling story with mass appeal. As with most projects of this sort, I couldn’t help but think this was a foolhardy exercise as the 1973 original starred Steve McQueen in one of his finest roles, and, under director Franklin J. Schaffner’s steady hand, could hardly be improved upon.
Danish director Micheal Noer’s take on the life of French forger Henri Charriere is equally gripping and, in many ways, measures up to its predecessor, striking a similar tone but going a bit further in showing the horrendous conditions that the title character and his fellow inmates had to endure after they were sent to a French penal colony. That the film succeeds is due in large part to Noer’s ability to cover a great deal of narrative ground in a brisk, engaging manner and the performances of its two leads.
Framed for murder, Charriere (Charlie Hunnam) is sent to French Guiana in South America to serve a life sentence. Living in squalor, forced to toil to the point of exhaustion on work details and slowly starving to death, he decides the only way he will survive is to escape, something the warden almost encourages as he knows conditions in the surrounding jungle will likely prove fatal to anyone foolish enough to flee. However, in order to procure a boat and other means, Charriere needs money, so he becomes the protector of convicted forger Louis Dega (Rami Malek), who has a small fortune on his person.
These two fail upon their first escape attempt but forge a bond that survives being separated for years, as well as other foiled bids for freedom and inhumane conditions that threaten to break their spirits at every turn.
The relationship between Charriere and Dega is the key to this film, as their relationship serves as a metaphor for the enduring hope that keeps both men alive. Hunnam and Malek take on the thankless task of following in McQueen and Dustin Hoffman’s footsteps respectively and each accord themselves handsomely. They succeed in putting a distinct stamp on their roles, but, most importantly, their chemistry provides a sense of realism to the pair’s friendship.
Shooting in Malta and Serbia, Noer creates a distinctive sense of place that effectively drives home how horrendous the conditions were that these and other prisoners had to contend with. Peeling paint, cracked walls and rampant filth all contribute to the sense that these men were treated as if they were just so much trash that was discarded with no thought of rehabilitation. As shot by cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski, the film has a perpetually overcast look to it that effectively accentuates the oppressive nature of these men’s existence.
Ultimately, like the best prison movies, Papillon is a testament to the power of hope and the tenacity of those who can cling to it in the most deplorable conditions. An effective metaphor for our tyrannical times, the film powerfully reminds us that only through mutual support and personal fortitude can the oppressed ever hope to overcome those that would rob them of their human dignity.