Remaking a classic movie has is pitfalls, although Hollywood seems to do it these days with alarming regularity. Even so, taking on the seminal prison escape movie Papillon would seem like a fool’s errand. Made in 1973, and directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, this true story starred Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman at the peak of their powers. There is, of course, an argument that younger generations will never have seen it, but may be drawn in by the casting of Sons of Anarchy’s Charlie Hunnam and Bohemian Rhapsody star Rami Malek.
Returning to the books by Frenchman Henri Charrière, the story follows his exhilarating account of being sent to a penal colony in 1930s French Guiana after being falsely convicted of murder. Known by his nickname “Papillon,” named after the butterfly tattoo on his chest, Charrière is here played by Hunnam, with a cocksure swagger; we first see him as a petty safecracker in Paris, romancing good time girl Nenette (Eve Hewson) – scenes that were not included in the original, perhaps with good reason.
After he’s framed for a gang killing, “Papi” is shipped off to South America, and he soon meets wealthy counterfeiter Louis Degas (Malek). With money the only currency that talks where they’re heading, Papi offers protection to Degas and so begins an uneasy friendship that blossoms as they try to escape from the hellish Devil’s Island. Faced with the cruelty of Yorick Van Wageningen’s prison warder, enduring beatings and psychological torture with long stints in isolation, it’s an utterly demoralizing universe this pair is submerged into.
Danish director Michael Noer, who tackled the subject of prison in his 2010 debut R, does a credible enough job, but his Papillon entirely lacks the scale of the original. With Malta, Montenegro and Serbia doubling for French Guiana, there’s a cut-price feel to the film – which is only compounded with the casting of Hunnam and Malek. Admittedly, it would be almost impossible to match up to McQueen and Hoffman, although Malek – as he proved as Freddie Mercury recently – is a magnetic presence on screen. Still, if you only see one Papillon, make it the 1970s one.
Papillon opens on 21 December. For more details, visit www.signature-entertainment.co.uk
1. Still from Papillon.