Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Michael Noer
Screenwriter: Aaron Guzikowski, based on the books “Papillon” and “Banco” by Henri Charrière
Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Rami Malek, Yorick Van Wageninger, Roland Møller, Tommy Flanagan
Screened at: Park Avenue, NYC, 8/8/18
Opens: August 24, 2018
According to the Britannica, Devil’s Island has a growing tourist population, a great winter resort. How times have changed. In previous centuries, even in much of the last one, the place was used by France which sought to get rid of some of the more dangerous criminals, but even Devil’s Island, if we believe the new film by Michael Noer, was a respite from the harsh punishments meted by the French government in French Guiana in the Northeast tip of South America. (Note that the UK used to send criminals to Australia, Australia sent some malefactors to Tasmania.)
Mention “Papillon,” and movie buffs will instantly recall Steve McQueens’ best role in the 1973 adaptation written by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr. Prison dramas were big decades ago as they are now—my favorite being “Cell 2455 Death Row,” the 1955 drama which enacts the imprisonment of Caryl Chessman found guilty of the Little Lindbergh law against kidnapping. If you see the most recent one, “A Prayer Before Dawn,” you’ll know not to smuggle drugs when you’re in Thailand, but nothing shown on screen outside of the two “Papillon” movies exhibits a country so brutal that it would send people not guilty of murder to French Guiana.
Filmed in Malta, Montenegro, and Serbia, “Papillon” does not have enough going for it to justify its 133 minutes’ length, just seemingly endless travails by the inmates of French Guiana, most of whom are not guilty of murder. Call it, if you will, a road-and-buddy movie, but the road is not from Paris to Marseilles but rather from the French capital across the ocean to a land that for some reason the French still hold as a colony.
The road is taken by safecracker Henry “Papillon” Charrière after he is framed for a gangland murder in revenge for having kept some of the big rocks for himself to give to Nenette (Eve Hewson), his lady fair. Escape is on his mind throughout his imprisonment which, sadly enough, will include seven years’ in the hole, or solitary confinement with total silence. It’s not that Warden Barrot (Yorick van Wageninger) didn’t want the inmates. He does tell them to go ahead and escape, and they will be shot in the jungle; and if they opt for the sea, the sharks are as hungry as they are. Henry teams up with Louis Dega (Rami Malek), who is imprisoned for counterfeiting bonds, a fragile-looking bespectacled fellow who somehow has money on his person all the way across the ocean, money which could be used to hire a boat to escape.
In the most dramatic scene, that is, a scene that takes us away from the static photography of prisoners lining up, sleeping with little room between bodies, and one guillotine for a guy who murders a guard, Papi, Maturette (Joel Bassman) and Celier (Roland Møller make an escape attempt notwithstanding Papi’s experience in solitary and the seeming hopelessness of getting away.
So far as the road-and-buddy movie idea, Danish director Noer, whose more imaginative “Son of God” about a dwarf looked upon as Jesus Christ by followers in the Philippines, wants us to consider this a love story. And indeed, Papillon could have had a better time for himself if he did not attack a guard who was beating his forger pal with whom he has an almost sacred bond.
I would have expected Charlie Hunnam to look thinner about 7 years’ solitary confinement, and how did he keep his teeth when he was fed little more than soup every day in the dark silence of the most extreme punishment imaginable. Were I there, I might try to kill a guard in order to be guillotined: life imprisonment with years of solitary is worse than the death penalty, which is why so many killers in America commit suicide as they are about to be collared by the police.
Hagen Bogdanski is responsible for the crisp photography, but if you had seen the original “Papillon,” not as brutal as this version but with more dynamic storytelling, you might wonder: why this?
Rated R. 133 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – C
Acting – B
Technical – B+
Overall – B-