Michael Noer/ Serbia Montenegro Malta USA/ 2017/ 138 mins
As part of Edinburgh International Film Festival
This second adaptation of Henri Charriere’s autobiography about his time in a French Guiana penal colony follows Charriere (Charlie Hunnam) as he, along with fellow prisoner Louis Dega (Rami Malek), withstands the hardships of the colony long enough to make more than one daring escape.
The most famous adaptation of Papillon is Franklin J. Schaffner‘s acclaimed 1973 film starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, and unfortunately for this version, it looks likely to stay that way. This isn’t to say that this version is bad by any means. For example, Hagen Bogdanski’s cinematography effectively conveys the harsh heat of Devil’s Island as well as the dark, claustrophobic interiors of Charriere’s solitary confinement cell. Similarly, the action sequences are well-choreographed, providing a sense of brutal realism that the earlier film lacked and the production design appears to accurately recreate the squalid living conditions in the penal colony.
However, Aaron Guzikowski’s script leaves out too much of Charriere’ experiences as a prisoner, with his relationship with Dega glossed over in comparison to the earlier film, depriving Malek of the chance to fully establish his character in the way that Hoffman did. This is a shame given his convincing depiction of Dega as a more physically vulnerable counterpart to Charriere. The depiction of Charriere’s initial escape is also abbreviated to the point of seeming rushed, with his eventual recapture occurring too soon in the narrative for it to have any impact and missing out on his encounter with a leper colony.
Hunnam does a better job than McQueen of conveying Charriere’s descent into near-madness when placed in solitary confinement and his physical deterioration, even if Noer doesn’t experiment with his hallucinations in the way that Schaffner did, only including one brief sequence set in Paris. However, Hunnam’s performance in a newly-added prologue showing his arrest is a little stiff in comparison to his later scenes.
Overall, Papillon (2017) is a solid but unremarkable adaptation that fails to take advantage of the source material as the 1973 version did.