Home LIFESTYLE Style News Papillon Review: Watch Charlie Hunnam Fight for Survival, Handsomely

Papillon Review: Watch Charlie Hunnam Fight for Survival, Handsomely

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Here’s a tip: don’t get framed for murder, especially in Paris during the early 1930s. That’s what happens to Henri Charrière (Charlie Hunnam) in Papillon, a remake of the 1973 film starring Steve McQueen that was based on the best-selling autobiography of a celebrated outlaw with a butterfly tattoo.

When we first meet Pappi, he’s a debonair jewel thief having a fabulous time in the underworld—with Eve Hewson on his arm and in his bedroom. But when a pimp ends up dead, he’s the one who gets hauled away. His sentence is to aid “the greater glory of French expansion,” meaning he’s shipped off to French Guiana and put to work building infrastructure under brutal conditions. At night, he’s chained by the feet, and there are frequent reminders (like a prominently placed guillotine) to stay in line.

But have you seen Charlie Hunnam lately? This is a classic Hollywood leading man, and you know he’s got that never-say-die spirit. In between the many shots showing off his abs in outdoor showers, he’s scheming his escape. Lucky for him, he’s got Dega (Rami Malek) as his new pal.

Dega is a white-collar criminal, small of frame and weak of constitution. (Dustin Hoffman played him in the 1973 version.) He’s got money (yes, he’s hidden it exactly where you think), and Papillon agrees to be his protector in exchange for that cash. Not that there are any shops around, but to make bribes. At first, things seem to be going well (though they are not very sanitary)—but then come the setbacks. Years and years of setbacks that involve physical and mental torture.

Unfortunately, the scene I most remember from the earlier version—a starving Steve McQueen reduced to eating insects—doesn’t appear in this one. But you know what? Enough comparisons. While still heavily mirroring the other film’s story beats, Danish director Michael Noer establishes his own rhythm. It’s one of constant action and near-cartoonish brutality. As soon as Hunnam gets done suffering from one atrocity, the cruel guards and sadistic warden hit him with the next one.

Papillon spent a compounded eight years in solitary confinement, with long stretches in total darkness. Noer goes a little over-the-top with one of the dream sequences, but who wouldn’t go a little mad under these conditions? And in any case, the joy on Hunnam’s face as he tastes a smuggled coconut is a great moment of big, broad screen acting.

He gets those coconuts despite being in solitary because of his bond with Dega. As time (and additional escape plans) continue, their friendship becomes the light in what would otherwise be a film of pure misery. Unfortunately, the writing is considerably weaker than the film’s performances and location shooting—so you have to take it on faith that these two men are so linked. There’s more telling than showing in this department.

But there’s plenty of showing when it comes to running through the jungle, or battling the elements on the open sea. There are a number of fight scenes (prisoners put to hard labor tend to get testy), but there’s always an eye toward making even the tussles in the mud look lush.

The film concludes with some end cards about the 80,000 criminals shipped to French Guiana—but while I’m usually one for railing against injustice, this movie works best as an adventure yarn, not a finger-pointing screed. I know Papillon was a real person, but strangely enough the movie about his life doesn’t feel like the time or place to worry about his humanity. It’s far more fun to watch him fight for survival.

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