Directed by Michael Noer
Starring Rami Malek, Charlie Hunnam, Eve Hewson
Note to self: don’t get sent to a penal colony in French Guiana in 1931.
Unfortunately for Henri Charrière, the dashing Parisian jewelry thief nicknamed Papillon for the butterfly tattoo on his chest, that’s exactly what happens after he is framed for murder.
When you are as handsome and suave as Henri (played by Charlie Hunnam and his muscles) you think that something this bad can never happen to a guy like you. But once the trial ends and you are on a filthy boat getting abused by sadistic guards, it’s clearly time to hatch a plan.
What follows is a grueling, at-times brutal examination of the never-say-die spirit, based at least in part on a true story.
Chances are you recall the 1973 version of “Papillon” with Steve McQueen. The new one holds its own. Rami Malek (soon to star in the Freddie Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody”) is the conniving forger Louis Dega (originally Dustin Hoffman) who befriends Henri, but the real star, then and now, is the exotic location and harsh circumstances.
“How would I handle this?” you ask, and if any of us are being honest, the answer is “not well.” While the movie may seem packaged like a prestige drama, it works best when it just admits that it’s a gross-out adventure yarn. The prisoners starve and scowl and tussle in the mud. They scheme to bribe boatmen to take them down the river. (Don’t ask where they hide their money.) Just when you think freedom is around the corner, a new obstacle arises.
The government claims the labor outpost — with its looming guillotine and barbaric solitary confinement holes — is to aid the “glory of French advancement.” But on film it means two hours of watching ripped men sweat and suffer.
Atrocity becomes Charlie Hunnam, and when Henri’s unwillingness to back down to authority lands him extended periods alone in the dark you really feel for him. He needs to sell some desperate actions as logical, and by-and-large does a good job. “Papillon” isn’t a particularly original film, but it far from a prison sentence.