Papillon Movie Review
When you remake a well-regarded movie that starred two iconic actors with a lesser cast and release it in the dead of August, you more or less know what you’re going to get. Papillon, a retelling of the Steve McQueen/Dustin Hoffman true-life drama starring Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek—no slouches, mind you—is a moderately entertaining but emotionally dry production.
Hunnam plays the title character, a Parisian thief who is framed for murder and sent to a penal colony in French Guiana, where he suffers 14 years of abuse but never gives up hope of escaping.
And by the end, you’re rooting for him to escape just so that this overly long movie can come to close.
I’ve never seen the original, nor have I read the autobiographical book on which both are based, but based on a little Wikipedia plot research, what’s most baffling and disappointing is how closely this remake sticks to the McQueen movie—itself a very streamlined and altered adaptation—rather than stand as its own unique adaptation. Even without seeing the original, Papillon plays like a by-the-numbers retelling, director Michael Noer lurching from one necessary plot point to the next with little regard for developing the characters or exploring what makes them tick.
Interestingly, while the 1973 film was well reviewed and a box office hit, Roger Ebert cited issues with the development of the two lead characters and stated, "You know something has gone wrong when you want the hero to escape simply so that the movie can be over."
This new Papillon isn’t without its strong scenes, and frankly scene by scene it’s perfectly decent. Viewed as a whole, though, the movie is somewhat flat and instantly forgettable, the story never gaining momentum or mounting to anything of real purpose.
Charlie Hunnam is solid in the lead, but he’s pretty much alone in that regard. His co-star Rami Malek, utilizing an odd accent and affect that feels like a poor imitation of a Dustin Hoffman role about some dude trapped in a penal colony, is hard to watch. For a movie about a bunch of French people, it’s also weird that practically no one—including Hunnam—even attempts a French accent.
Papillon is serviceable in its execution, but the movie rarely makes a case for its existence, nor does it seem interested in exploring the real Henri 'Papillon' Charrière.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.