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EIFF 2018: Papillon (2017) starring Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek

N.B. This film is not on wide release in the UK at present. It is showing at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on Sunday 24th and Tuesday 26th June 2018.

Life in a French prison colony

This adaptation of a 1973 film, which in itself was based on a 1969 autobiographical novel by French convict Henri “Papillon” Charrière, features Charlie Hunnam taking on the titular role. He’s a jewel thief operating in Paris during the early 1930s who ends up being wrongly convicted of murder. He is sentenced to hard labour in a penal colony in French Guiana.

While on board the prison ship heading towards its destination, he befriends a convicted forger named Louis Dega (played by Rami Malek). Louis is a white-collar criminal who can’t handle the more violent aspects of prison life. Moreover, the fact that he has chosen to smuggle some money in a “charger” lodged in his anus means that he is a target for others. Papillon hits upon the idea of agreeing to protect him in exchange for bankrolling their escape.

The film follows their many years of friendship, Papillon’s numerous attempts to escape the penal colony and the brutal punishments which are meted out to him when he is recaptured.

Watch a trailer:

Is it a worthy remake?

Confession: I’ve never watched the original 1973 version of this film, although I am aware that it was a major success at the time of its release. This version has already made a few festival appearances and has garnered rather mixed reviews thus far. Accordingly, I entered with no real baggage of expectations… and came out having felt that I’d watched a pretty decent violent adventure film, albeit with some caveats.

The recent film which is closest in tone to it is Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning adaptation of Michael Punke’s The Revenant (2015). While this one isn’t quite on the same level, it does manage to evoke a similarly brutal feel. It places a huge emphasis on its own environment and an intimacy with a character who spends much time trying to survive a series of physical and mental ordeals. It positively wallows in the grittier aspects of the tale: mud, dirt, blood, gore and the occasional cockroach scuttling on the floor. The sheer visceral ugliness of penal colony life is laid bare here, enabling the viewer to clearly understand how it could take its toll on the most physically tough of men and the hardiest of psyches. Not that those in control of the institution have much interest in making the inmates’ stay any more pleasant; that guillotine has been placed in the central courtyard for a reason.

It’s Charlie Hunnam who is central here and he does manage to turn in an impressively committed piece of work. As with his previous film The Lost City of Z, he underwent some intense physical preparation to the extent of going on a vegan diet, taking up smoking and living in a jail cell without food and water for 8 days, losing about 30 lbs in body weight in the process. It was well worth it for a performance which keeps the viewer engrossed even through a (deliberately) static and visually-drab extended section of the film where he is locked in solitary confinement. Rami Malek’s role is more secondary but he still turns in a fine, restrained performance as a fragile and vulnerable man who took a wrong turn in life and landed within this horrifying environment in the process. The onscreen relationship between the two men has a poignant depth and commitment to it.

Papillon 2017 remake

The production values here are mostly spot-on, especially the gruesome prosthetics, Tom Meyer’s claustrophobically grubby production design and Hagen Bogdanski’s atmospheric cinematography. On the other hand, the rather Americanised accents sported by the French characters are a slightly baffling touch - although this appears to have also been the case with the 1973 version.

The main flaw here, however, is that Papillon is rather overlong for what it is. When all’s said and done, it’s little more than a glorified action/adventure/prison exploitation pic, albeit one made with considerably more commitment in terms of production and performances than the average Roger Corman pic. The 138 minutes’ worth of gruesome violence and gruelling physical ordeals, while never particularly boring, does get rather exhausting. It feels like the film is covering much of the same ground over and over again and could have been shorn of a good half an hour. Again, this criticism has also been made of the earlier film version.

Nonetheless, viewers who a fully prepared to wallow in the gritty, gruelling and gory will be in their element here.

Runtime: 138 mins

Dir: Michael Noer

Script: Aaron Guzikowski, from an original screenplay by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr. and a novel by Henri Charrière

Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Rami Malek, Tommy Flanagan, Eve Hewson, Roland Møller, Michael Socha

Rating: ☆☆☆1/2

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