Papillon

 

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Henri Charrière’s brutal incarceration in a penal colony in French Guiana is brought vividly to life in an authoritative re-telling.

   

Papillon

Escape artist: Charlie Hunnam as Henri Charrière

 

If one has never come across the story of Henri Charrière before, prepare to be shocked. Personally, I’ve read the memoir on which this film is based and saw Franklin J. Schaffner's 1973 adaptation of it, with Steve McQueen. Even so, Charrière’s story fails to lose its ability to appal. So be warned, it’s a brutal, gruelling watch. Indeed, it’s hard to know who would want to subject themselves to the horrors that the French safecracker went through in the penal system of French Guiana. Yet audiences can’t get enough of the atrocities packed into Les Misérables, another story of French torment.

 

Once one has got over the incongruity of French characters speaking in broad American accents (including the non-American Charlie Hunnam, Eve Hewson and Christopher Fairbank), the film begins to assert its grip. The opening shot is arresting, in which a bearded, emaciated Hunnam tentatively pokes his head through the grimy hole of his prison cell. This image of the square is then replicated in Paris many years earlier, as a younger Charrière escapes through a window after emptying the contents of a safe. Charrière’s first mistake is to withhold a precious necklace from the spoils he steals for his fence (Fairbank). One of the latter’s henchmen spots Charrière’s girlfriend (Hewson) holding the necklace and so, for his treachery, Charrière is framed for murder and shipped off to French Guiana to serve a life sentence. It’s an inhuman place and Charrière clings to his sanity by dreaming of escape. But nobody has managed to escape the prison alive…

 

For all their barbarity, prison movies are a surprisingly regular phenomenon. Relatively recent examples include the creditable Hunger, A Prophet and Starred Up. The Danish director Michael Noer himself made his name with the unrelenting R: Hit First, Hit Hardest (2010), and returns to the subject with this altogether more epic story of incarceration and humiliation.

 

In prison, Charrière befriends the small but wily counterfeiter Louis Dega (Rami Malek), who conceals his entire fortune in his digestive tract. However, even this hiding place is not foolproof as one convict is gutted before Charrière even sets foot in his new home. Many atrocities ensue and thanks to Noer’s lucid, taut direction, we follow Charrière willingly through hell. Hunnam is an actor with presence to spare and Malek (who played Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody) is a suitably twitchy foil to his machismo. Whether or not we need another Papillon is a moot point, but the new film’s bruising authority certainly gives the first adaptation a run for its money. It remains an extraordinary story of hope and human resilience.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Rami Malek, Yorick van Wageningen, Eve Hewson, Roland Møller, Michael Socha, Brian Vernel, Nicholas Asbury, Slavko Sobin, Antonio de la Cruz, Christopher Fairbank, Veronica Quilligan.

 

Dir Michael Noer, Pro Joey McFarland, David Koplan, Ram Bergman and Roger Corbi, Screenplay Aaron Guzikowski, Ph Hagen Bogdanski, Pro Des Tom Meyer, Ed John Axelrad and Lee Haugen, Music David Buckley, Costumes Bojana Nikitovic.

 

Czech Anglo Productions/Ram Bergman Productions/FishCorb Films-Signature Entertainment

132 mins. Czech Republic/Spain/USA. 2017. Rel: 24 December 2018. Cert. 15.