This amazing (true) prison break story gets a second film adaptation

The new Papillon is leaner and more organic than its 1970s predecessor.

Rami Malek, Charlie Hunnam and Roland Moller in Papillon

Nostalgia tends to have us paint any older movie we remember as being a classic, just like classic rock now encompasses shit most people more or less just tolerated at the time. Franklin J. Schaffner’s Papillon (1973) is a pretty good movie, but it’s certainly no classic. It’s long and kind of overwrought, overreaching in spots to transcend what it seems to perceive as being “merely” a prison break/adventure type of film. There’s a real good two-hour movie within its 150 minutes, which already makes it a pretty good candidate for a remake. The other reason is that Papillon is based on a truly remarkable real story — one so completely outlandish that it could be told from any point of view with nearly any goal in mind and still remain reasonably compelling. Director Michael Noer has actually opted to skew pretty close to the original, but he has also excised a lot of the haughty, overreaching attempts at making a towering epic. His Papillon is a leaner, more organic film than its predecessor.

Henri Charrière (Charlie Hunnam) is living the high-life as a thief and high-society hobnobber in 1930s Paris. His effortless jewel scores keep his girlfriend (Eve Hewson) swimming in luxury, but they’ve also gotten him in trouble with some underworld types who select him as the fall guy for a murder. The trial goes poorly, and Charrière is sentenced to life imprisonment on an island penal colony in French Guiana. Charrière almost immediately links up with Louis Dega (Rami Malek), a diminutive forger who seems convinced that his wealth will allow his wife to get him out of prison. Charrière offers to protect Dega (who has a not-insignificant amount of money stuffed up his ass for safekeeping) in exchange for monetary compensation once Charrière pulls off the escape he’s already clearly planning to make.

It’s not an easy task, as you may imagine. One of the most indelible aspects of the Papillon story — be it from the film or from the autobiographical book that inspired it — is just how much of a hopeless slog it felt like, a thoroughly dispiriting affair in which triumph is almost always followed up by worse tragedy. (I don’t think that it qualifies as a spoiler to say that Charrière did eventually escape from prison — I mean, it is based on a very long book that he certainly didn’t write with a chunk of poop from solitary confinement.)

The way that slog is treated pretty much defines what Papillon ultimately is about, and Noer’s approach is a much less grandiose one than the one we’ve seen in the past. It’s a scrappier film more focused on the nitty-gritty of survival, in which there are no heroes and only nebulous villains. It’s a tale of survival for survival’s sake rather than one that posits survival as some sort of grand gesture transcending humanity, which also makes the relationship between the two men more important. (It’s unfortunate that, as he does in the book and the film, Dega remains kind of a cypher; he’s both a inseparable buddy and kind of a human Macguffin, which is almost impossible to balance.)  I’d hesitate to even call it an action or adventure film considering how much of the narrative thrust revolves around characters trying to shit or trying to prevent themselves from shitting, but it can get fairly brutal in some instances.

Hunnam also proves to be a more than capable leading man in the most traditional sense. Though he doesn’t really have much in common with Steve McQueen as an actor besides some generic attributes, Hunnam has severely pivoted to a kind of Peter O’Toole/Paul Newman flavour in the last few years. Having spent the majority of his film career in service of studios trying to make him the next big thing through ill-advised blockbsuters, Hunnam has found a groove inhabited by almost no one else with this and The Lost City of Z. He represents a real timeless heroic ideal in some way. While the performance is as good as in James Gray’s film (which is likely to be a career-best for years to come), he really does anchor this film in a way that he’s rarely managed in the past. Malek has a much harder job, considering his character is such a bizarre mix of pathetic and steely. He does indulge in significantly less of the Christmas-pageant performance choices that defined Dustin Hoffman’s performance in the original.

As it stands, though, comparing both versions of Papillon proves a fairly thankless job. Noer’s adaptation is dynamic and interesting for all the right reasons, though it definitely wastes time with the prologue and coda, which add almost nothing to a film that already lives and dies by the way it calibrates the redundant and torturous nature of the narrative. It manages not to feel like the umpteenth variation on a prison movie simply by virtue of its setting, and it’s generally a very compelling, sometimes brutal movie. Most tellingly: if you were to ask me which of the Papillon movies you should see if you could see just one, I would have no answer. Both are pretty good. And pretty good’s a great deal from where I’m standing. ■

Papillon opens in theatres on Friday, Aug. 24. Watch the trailer here: