By John H. Foote
Watching Papillon at TIFF last September I kept asking why? Why remake the film?
The original, while not a masterpiece, was a solid film, well acted by Steve McQueen, movie star, never much of an actor and Dustin Hoffman, wonderful in the film, and well directed by Oscar winner Franklin J. Shaffner (Patton; 1970). Why remake a film if you do not intend to surpass it? To make it better? What is the point?
The Coens were thought to be crazy for remaking True Grit (2010) but yet it turned out better than the first, grittier, less mythical, easily the greatest western since Unforgiven (1992). They did this by returning to the book by Charles Portis, fleshing out the characters, making it an ensemble. This new Papillon is not better than the first, nor worse, but it is more realistic, much more honest and is not weighted down the star baggage.
I never thought much of Steve McQueen as an actor. To me he was always the same, that cool dude everyone looks up too. Big deal, I never got it, I still do not. So, I was not the least bit bugged by Charlie Hunnam assuming the role.
We first encounter Charriere (Hunnam) in the Paris underworld in 1931. A thief, he is very comfortable with his lady love and money he has piled up stealing. However, it comes to a crushing end when he gets on the wrong side of the wrong people, is set up and sent to a French Penal colony for forty years. Hard labour, seriously a terrible place to live, which is why from the moment he arrives he begins plotting an escape.
In one of the most feared prisons at the time, inescapable it is said, Papillon (as he is nicknamed) decides he can and will escape off this hell in the tropics.
Befriended by Louise Dega (Rami Malek) a gentle, terrified banker who bilked thousands out of millions and he too has been jailed. Dega needs Papillon for protection, Papillon needs Dega for his brains and his money.
Thus, begins a strange friendship between two very different, very unique men living in punishing heat, a tropical paradise teeming with bugs and snakes, with power drunk guards fast with the whip and a warden who sneeringly dares the men to try and escape.
Director Michael Noel does a solid job depicting the atmosphere the men live in, there is never a question this was a living hell. Death would have been welcome to this existence.
But Papillon obsesses about escape.
Hunnam is good as Papillon, but not really memorable. I saw the film nearly a year ago and have not thought about it since. I can barely recall what Hunnam looks like! On the other hand, Rami Malek is excellent as Dega, his large liquid eyes filled with the pain of where he is, though Dega found peace eventually, finding no need to flee. He knew however his friend had too, that he would die if he remained at the prison. Malek made a huge impression on me in The Pacific for HBO as Snafu in the WWII epic, though he is best known for his work in Mr. Robot. This fall he portrays Freddie Mercury, lead singer of Queen in Bohemian Rhapsody, which could bring him Oscar attention.
Though the film is much darker than the original, I am not sure it made a difference.
After watching it I was simply indifferent and still asking why?
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.