by George Wolf
Don’t expect wholesale changes to the classic survival tale from 1973. Instead, Danish director Michael Noer makes a subtle shift in tone, moving the focus away from the physical, and more toward the mental, philosophical and spiritual toll levied by years in a brutal penal colony.
Like the Steve McQueen/Dustin Hoffman original, this new Papillon is based on Henri Charriere’s book detailing his ordeal in a French Guyana prison camp, a sentence that began in the 1930s. Though the questionable authenticity of many of the book’s details earned it a “biographical novel” classification, Henri’s tale of primal struggle still commands attention.
As Henri (nicknamed “Papillon” after his butterfly tattoo), Charlie Hunnam finds McQueen’s big shoes a surprisingly comfortable fit. Showing more commitment than he has to date, Hunnam turns in a fierce performance that caters to Noer’s vision of an outside/in character arc.
Rami Malek is even better as the soft-spoken Louis, a wealthy counterfeiter who leans on the bruising Henri to provide safe haven from the savagery of other inmates. Keeping the basics of Hoffman’s characterization, Malek adds his own shading for a compelling take on a man drawn to his friend for the defiant commitment lacking within himself.
Noer sets a compelling contrast between two worlds, both visually impressive. The prison interiors are draped in blood, sweat and dark despair, while the colorful, expansive vistas just outside taunt the inmates with constant reminders of a freedom they are not likely to taste again.
The parts are all here and competently assembled, but the punch of the bigger themes Noer and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski (Prisoners, Contraband) are aiming for never land flush. The ordeal is tense, brutal and sometimes pulse-pounding, but this new Papillon can’t fully expose the nerve it was digging for.
Beyond physical toughness, what was it that drove Henri to merely bend where other men were breaking?
We get some fine glimpses, but none with depth enough to truly transcend the journey.