I have dim memories of the classic 1973 drama “Papillon,” the true crime story of Henri Charrière, the Parisian safecracker sentenced to the French penal colony in French Guiana, who attempted escape and endured solitary confinement and exile to the dreaded Devil’s Island.
I remember Steve McQueen, rugged and indefatigable as Charrière, nicknamed Papillon for the butterfly tattoo on his chest. I remember Dustin Hoffman, with his darting eyes sizing up all the angles as Louis Dega, a forger who becomes Papillon’s only friend in prison. I didn’t remember, and only realized through surfing around the Internet Movie Database, that “Papillon” was the last produced script the great screenwriter Dalton Trumbo worked on before his death in 1976 — and its themes of freedom and escape must have resonated for someone who survived the blacklist.
Watching a new version of “Papillon,” adapted from Charrière’s memoirs and from the 1973 script (credited to Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr.) by Danish director Michael Noer and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski (who wrote Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners”), I found it to be a solidly constructed telling of the story. Even so, it didn’t dislodge those decades-old memories of McQueen and Hoffman.
Charlie Hunnam has a fair amount of the McQueen swagger, playing Henri as a roguish thief who puckishly cheats his mobster boss (Christopher Fairbank) to make a nest-egg for himself and his girlfriend, Nanette (Eve Hewson). The boss gets wind of Henri’s deceit and takes his revenge by framing him for murder, for which Henri is sentenced to life in French Guiana.
Even on the transport ship, Henri is looking for his chance to escape. He soon sizes up that it would benefit him to befriend Louis Dega (Rami Malek), a bespectacled forger who comes from a wealthy family. Louis is an easy target for the brutes on the boat, and Louis realizes it, too — which is why he offers to bankroll any escape attempt Henri makes, using the money he keeps in a capsule he hides in his rectum.
Escape won’t be easy, the penal colony’s warden (Yorick van Wageningen) tells the inmates. There’s the jungle on one side, the shark-infested sea on the other, and harsh penalties for anyone who gets caught: Two years in solitary for the first offense, five years’ solitary and a life sentence on Devil’s Island for the second. And if a prisoner kills a guard in the attempt, the guillotine awaits.
Noer and Guzikowski divide the movie between Henri’s daring escape attempts and the harsh retribution the warden doles out when he’s caught. The escape scenes have a frenetic, improvised energy. Henri’s long stretches in silence, as the warden tries to break his spirit and his mind, are harrowing but repetitive.
Hunnam, hopefully done with blockbusters (“Pacific Rim” and “King Arthur”), is settling into the character-actor phase of his leading-man career nicely. But the real power, in terms of acting, is generated by Malik, whose friendship gives Hunnam’s Henri the purpose he needs to continue fighting, sacrificing and attempting to escape.
I’m not saying this new rendition of “Papillon” is better than the McQueen/Hoffman original, and I’m not saying it’s worse. It’s a potent, well-executed version of Charrière’s amazing story. It does make me want to seek out the ’73 version, to see how well it holds up after all these years.
Opens Friday, August 24, in theaters everywhere. Rated R for violence including bloody images, language, nudity and some sexual material. Running time: 133 minutes.