Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Aug 25, 2018 5:37 pm 
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Back to the penal colony

Papillon is a remake starring Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek of the Steve McQueen-Dustin Hoffman original. The story, based on autobiographical accounts whose personal veracity has been questioned, concerns two French criminals' lengthy incarceration and escapes from a penal colony in French Guiana in the 1930's. When critics ask why anyone would redo a film as great as the 1973 Franklin J. Schaffner version, they are disregarding the fact that in the view of many, that first version wasn't so great: it got more bad reviews than good ones. Both have been Metacritic-rated and both are in the 50's, though the earlier one did better (but they usually do). Mind you, Canby called the original "brave" and Sarris said it was "exhilarating." Some of us may remember it as merely intense, and a slog we don't forget right away. This time again we've got the, arguably out-of-date, convention of French characters all speaking American-accented English.

One may walk out of the new film wondering why it was made, not because of the greatness of the original, because it is not great, but because the basic story is numbing and exhausting. There are exciting escapes, but then the prisoner is locked up even tighter than before. If you want to be numbed and exhausted by a prison-escape tale, you should watch Bresson's A Man Escaped, which gets to the essence of the experience.

On the other hand if you want a rich, vivid prison-and-escape movie - in short, if you want to be entertained - you may watch Alan Parker's 1978 Midnight Express (penned by Oliver Stone) - a movie clearly too good to need a remake. If you recall the intimate prison relationship between Brad Davis as Billy Hayes, and John Hurt as Max in Midnight Express, you know what does not take place in Papillon. It can't, because the protagonist spends most of his time in solitary.

Pauline Keel called the 1973 Papillon "methodical, and pointlessly grueling." Roger Ebert, in an overstated pan that he came to regret and list as one of his "worst reviews," wrote that the film "doesn’t so much conclude as cross the finish line and collapse," beating the dead horse with the further sally: "You know something has gone wrong when you want the hero to escape simply so that the movie can be over." Richard Schickel amusingly said the French Guiana prisons were "Disneyland for masochists," living on forever in their imaginations though long closed down.

The new version is based on the 1973 Dalton Trumbo, Lorenzo Semple Jr. screenplay, also on the two memoirs of Henri Charrière (nickname "Papillon," Butterfly). It tries to be more realistic, and has a more elaborate prologue than the earlier version, showing Papillon (Hunnam) living it up as a cocky safecracker in 1930's Paris with a pretty girlfriend, Nenette (Eve Hewson) and a high-living lifestyle that abruptly ends when he's hauled off on murder charges in a frame-up engineered by gangsters pissed off that he has just admitted to saving "some of the biggest" stones from his latest jewel heist for himself.

Even if it's emotionally undernourished, the story revolves around the relationship between Papillon and Louis Dega, a millionaire counterfeiter he meets when they both come in the latest group of prisoners brought to the penal colony. Papillon and Dega strike a bargain. Papillon protects the small, cowardly Dega in exchange for money (hidden up his ass, as in the earlier version but more bluntly referred to) that he can use to finance an escape. He does escape, three times, succeeding only the last time.

The Danish director Michael Noer, who resembles Malek as Dega (both small, dark, bespectacled), makes this version seem more realistic, more bloody, more violent and brutal, than the earlier one. It's also less noble and epic. Noer calls this a "romance," but the buddy-picture aspect is weaker than the original's, and the love between the two men isn't felt until Malek as Dega warms up in the final few scenes, which developed progressively in the original. Along the way, we see beatings, rapes, and a vivid beheading by guillotine - Papillon and Dega even have to carry the bleeding body to its burial. Minor roles are well played but don't stand out, except for the uncompromising Warden Barrot, in immaculate floppy white colonial suits, memorably played by Yorick van Wageningen.

In 1973 Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman were huge movie stars. Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek are fresh new ones, even if Hunnam is a slow-developer, having been around since playing the fifeeen-year-old gay youth Nathan Maloney in the celebrated 1999 UK TV series "Queer As Folk" made him famous to the Brits. He has gained particular honor for his lead in the fine, dark TV biker drama "Sons of Anarchy" (2008-2014), which may have sidelined him a bit. He has excelled in occasional films, especially James Gray's Lost City of Z, but star-making roles have eluded him. Rami Malek also is mostly known for TV, as the bug-eyed obsessive, brilliant outlaw cyber genius Elliot Alderson in "Mr. Robot." He is wonderful in that role, but it has made me wonder if he may be doomed to be rather one-note.

The 1973 film paired totally unlike acting styles, the underplaying McQueen (who Kael quotes Robert Mitchum as saying "doesn't bring too much to the party") and the volatile character actor Hoffman - but Kael said Hoffman tried to out-underplay McQueen. Maybe it didn't matter. But for many viewers the 150-minute run-time was a long slog however they played it.

Hunnam brings more to the party, but this Papillon and Dega are the same kind of contrast. The depiction of Papillon's ordeal is undercut by Hunnam's robust physicality. He is such a magnificent swaggering specimen, so big, bold, buff, tall, and broad shouldered that even when he's lost forty pounds for the role, in the dark, solitary cell he still looks proud and robust. There's a momentary shock when we see him pale and gray haired, but then we see his erect bearing. The trouble with Malek as Dega is that the writing doesn't give him enough nuance as a character, who is defined purely by his physical problems, his fears and suspicions. It's a tragedy of humors, rather than a modern character. Both actors do well. But they've done better elsewhere. The film is beautifully photographed with a respect for period, and the score is admirably understated; you barely notice it, and that's a good thing. I won't lie, though: I wished I could have watched the new iMax restoration of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was projected in the same cineplex at too close to the same time to see both.

Papillon, 133 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 2017; also in the Montclair, Biografilm, and Edinburgh festivals; US theatrical release 24 Aug. 2018. Metascore: 52%.


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