I deliberately avoided watching the Steve McQueen-Dustin Hoffman Papillon so I could judge the merits of the Charlie Hunnam-Rami Malek version without the weight of cinematic history altering my experience and opinion. The verdict: this new Papillon is a fairly engrossing and well done account of Henri Charriere various escape attempts from a brutal and squalid prison camp in French Guiana and Devil’s Island.
History and good reporting has invalidated over sixty percent of Charriere’s autobiographical claims and another thirty percent was straight up plagiarism. Charriere requested Papillon be released as a novel but his French publisher insisted on its true life adventure status.
This Papillon has a measure of squalidness and brutality that makes it seem authentic. The one annoying flaw is the constant use of heavy New York accents that make the prison colony seem like an adjunct existing a few miles from the five boroughs.
Hunnam’s performance is a combination of athletic and naturalistic acting combined with a good dose of Hollywood ham that makes all the stoicism seem heroic and a little bit epic. Malek keeps his performance low key enough to make him feel like a less condescending but just as slavish Peter Lorre. In a true homage or accidental parody, towards the end they both slip into Dustin Hoffman-Steve McQueen mannerisms and accents.
Papillon meets expectations for those expecting a good adventure with a medium amount of genre cliches, but for fans of the original prison rations will never substitute for the agony feast that McHoff may have delivered.
All photos courtesy of Bleecker Street Films.