Papillon review: Based on Henri Charriere’s memoir from 1969, and re-adapting the classic 1973 film of the same name, Michael Noer directs a star-studded cast in this prison-drama – set to open here in the UK early 2019.

Papillon review by Awais Irfan.

Papillon review
Papillon review

Henri Charriere (Charlie Hunnam), aptly nicknamed ‘Papillon’ because of the butterfly tattoo inscribed across his chest, is a small-time thief for a big-time crook in Paris; one misstep later and he finds himself framed for a murder he didn’t commit and off to serve his sentence at the infamous penal colony on Devil’s Island in French Guiana. Here, he meets the hard-as-nails Julot (Michael Socha) and rich counterfeit forger Louis Dega (Rami Malek), who is smuggling a fair bit of cash in the prison and thus putting a target on his back; when Papi takes it upon himself to protect Dega for a small fee that will help fund his escape, the pair quickly find themselves with lots of unwanted attention as they plan their desperate breakout from a colony notorious for never being broken out of.

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I haven’t seen the Steve McQueen-Dustin Hoffman starring 1973 Papillon, nor was I familiar with the true story going into this. However, I was quite impressed with Noer’s take on the story. It’s a suitably intense and bleak film, given the source material, that doesn’t pull any punches – dark, violent, emotionally draining. This all is largely thanks to a superbly nuanced screenplay; the writing here is excellent in crafting out such compelling characters in Dega and Charriere. We never find out much about their lives beyond the occasional detail but we don’t need to; in prison life, prior lives are redundant and it becomes all about surviving. This is very much the case here. Despite this though, the friendship between the pair feels so real and is touchingly crafted – starting out as nothing more than a deal but blossoming into a bond so genuine and sincere that you’ll be wanting to pick up “Papega” bromance tees. Given that these men are, essentially, criminals, they remain human and flawed and it’s a testament to the writing for creating such likeable characters even though they should be anything but.

Papillon review
Papillon review

The narrative itself is constantly compelling, creating obstacles for Papi each more difficult than the one before. It’s made all the more gripping knowing that this all actually happened (or supposedly did, the accuracy of the memoir has been up for debate for many years). It’s such a raw, unflinching film; Hunnam gives a career-best performance, truly embodying who Charriere was mentally but also physically too – having lost A LOT of weight to play the role. He really went through the wringer and it’s emotional watching him take it all. Malek is also incredible, delivering a very subdued yet equally as impressive performance as the bumbling Dega – his arc is superb, starting off as hysterical and broken but hardening over the years in the prison. Noer’s direction is terrific in creating a very absorbing and tense atmosphere; the violence, whilst used sparingly, is hard-hitting and Noer knows less is more in really packing a punch.

Papillon is an exceptional piece; clocking in at around 134 minutes though, it can certainly drag on. The pacing is occasionally uneven but it’s hard to tell what I’d remove because near-enough every scene feels necessary to tell this story and build these characters. This is an intense, harrowing affair that is anchored by two career-best performances from Hunnam and Malek, made all the more nail-biting because of how real it feels and how real it actually was for these men. The cinematography is gorgeous too, with lots of sweeping landscapes shots contrasting with the grittier prison aesthetic. It certainly looks the part. It’s a visceral, emotional affair and a story that demands to be known – compelling from the off right through to the very end. Papillon stands for butterfly and this is a film that soars high.

Papillon review by Awais Irfan.

Papillon was reviewed at the 2018 Edinburgh International Film Festival.

REVIEW OVERVIEW
Papillon