‘PAPILLON’ stars Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek. It’s directed by Michael Noer and hits theaters this weekend. Labeled the “Greatest Escape Adventure Ever Told” this is a remake of the 1973 film of the same name that starred Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. Based on the memoirs of Henri Charrière, this is the story of his life, a man nicknamed “Papillon” who was framed for a murder he did not commit in the 1930’s. Sentenced to life in prison in French Guiana he befriends a counterfeiter that in exchange for protection inside will fund his escape plan.
Now if you are a cinephile the word “Papillon” has probably came up a time or two over the years. It had for me. I’ve heard of the ’73 film and knew it was held in high regards as far as cinematic achievement. I’ve heard references of Carrière and the escape he orchestrated, and it has always been something that generated some curiosity. So naturally I was intrigued to see this remake with Hunnam and Malek in the leads. While I have not seen the original film to compare it with this new interpretation. I can say this one on its own was a very compelling, and effectively able to take me on the miraculously daunting journey that both of their lives turned out to be.
It sounds cliché, but this was the story of the human-spirit despite all adversity, and it was incredibly intriguing. I found there to be many positives in this film, but two things rose above all to pull me into the story. Those being the performances from Hunnam and Malek, and the beautifully immersive production design. This film was able to bring me into the setting of the story, and it captured the time-period settings perfectly. The locations and set-designs were able to create a strong visual appeal that captured both the beauty of the region, as well as the inhospitable conditions of prison life in French Guiana.
The large open sets, and a variety of camera techniques provided a continual depth throughout that captured a feeling like you were in the story with the characters, and not simply watching. The musical score was subtle but fantastic. It built up the intensity in certain scenes extremely well. When the story swings to more tension filled moments the turn in the score was routinely well-timed to amp up the uneasiness and have me on edge.
I felt it replicated the grittiness of the source-material with a genuine tone. Not one that felt like wanted to stray into Hollywood theatrics. The run-time was on the long side. But in this instance, it was needed to capture the saga of these two men. You can feel their fatigue, you can sense every chance they had to give up. So, with the detail taken to capture the full journey of their lives, and the substance it does peel back along the way I can appreciate the effort. There were no wasted moments, or repetitive scenes, thus despite a lengthy progression it does keep a swift pace.
However, regardless of the visual appeal and the tightly written script. A film of this subject-matter hinges immensely on the two lead performances. Without them delivering, the film beautiful to look at or not, would fail to intrigue. Something it fortunately does not need to concern itself with because both Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek were phenomenal. Their chemistry was perfectly fitted to their unsuspected friendship and watching their rapport grow throughout the story was natural and heartfelt. What started out as an alliance based out of necessity, evolved into a true friendship between two men that only had each other left in the world, and both delivered this dynamic with a captivating result through their performances.
Charlie Hunnam was surprisingly capable in this role. I think he has gotten a bad rap in recent years. Some of it is performance based, most of it however in my opinion is script selection. But I generally tend to enjoy his character portrayals for what they are and think he has a lot of potential. With this easily being the best performance of his career. He poured himself into this film and embodied the character with a continual effort. He was charming early on to capture the pre-prison life of Papillon and I felt Hunnam captured the full-range of emotional turmoil with a natural intensity that hit along all the dramatic beats incredibly well to make you connect with him.
Rami Malek was excellent, he was unassuming but able to express so much emotion through his physical acting and facial expressions. His character was much different in terms of personality and despite their friendship, and being in the same situation, Malek’s character had many differing factors weighing down on him. Prison life impacted him far differently than it did Papillon, and Malek delivered this internal growth with a compelling result. All of which made you connect with Malek’s performances in different ways than Hunnam connects to you with his and the balance was thought-provoking throughout the story progression.
I am not bound by nostalgia from the original. But I found this to be a fascinating story, that showed ambition in crafting a polished film all-around. It’s carried by two fantastic performance, shows attention to detail, and creates a fantastic setting that is immersive which lures you into this amazing story of the human-spirit.
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