LET’S GO TO PRISON: PAPILLON IN 2018
Making a movie isn’t easy. It takes money, talent, and an army of craftspeople. But most of all it takes vision. Someone at the top level of a production, either the producer, director, or lead actor, must believe in their vision to get any project pushed through to completion. Without that vision, an artist might as well stay waiting tables.
This applies to original films and especially remakes. If you’re going to remake a film, there should a compelling reason to remake it. Otherwise why spend the money, time, and talent to put it out there?
“Why?” is a question I’m not sure the filmmakers behind Papillon never asked themselves.
EXPLAIN PAPILLON TO ME LIKE I WAS FIVE
Papillon tells the story of Henri “Papillon” Charriere, an expert safe cracker who, in 1931, gets framed for murder and is sent away for life at a prison colony in French Guiana. En route, he meets a fellow prisoner, Louis Dega, a wealthy forger and counterfeiter. Papillon offers Dega protection in exchange for money he’ll need to eventually escape and get back to Paris where the woman he loves is waiting for him. Hilarity, as they say, ensued.
As I watched Papillion, I couldn’t figure out why this movie exists
Remaking a film that – rightfully or wrongly — is considered a classic has to be someone’s passion project, right? But the film was so inert and uninteresting I couldn’t figure out who wanted this movie to be made.
Was it the producer, Ram Bergman? If so, why didn’t he hire a director that had a visual flair? Or at least one that could frame an interesting shot. Furthermore, why didn’t he insist on hiring a lead actor that could give a compelling performance as the character?
Was it the director, Michael Noer? If so, why didn’t he give the film a unique look? Why didn’t he hire an actor with a greater emotional range? Or ask the screenwriter, Aaron Guzikowski, to give Papillon more to do that would demonstrate Hunnam’s acting chops?
Maybe it was lead actor Charlie Hunnman? This makes the most sense, since stars have enormous power in Hollywood. Hunnman could’ve muscled this project through the system. But if he did, why didn’t he give a better performance or use his muscle to insist on more for his character to do, beyond suffer with dignity.
Another possibility: maybe all the players thought they created a fine picture.
Unfortunately, they didn’t.
WHY DIDN’T THE FILM WORK?
Part of the blame goes on director Noer. Two things save Papillion from being completely dreary: humdrum the excellent production design (1931 Paris looked vibrant and enticing), and the introductory shot of the movie, which was Hunnam sticking his head through an opening in a rusted iron door. Hunnman’s eyes looked haunted and desperate. And I must admit, that shot grabbed my attention and I was excited to see the rest of the film.
My excitement soon petered out after we left Paris for French Guiana.
The rest of the blame lands on Hunnam. I don’t know if Hunnam is truly a bad actor or if he just sucks at picking projects. Nothing I’ve seen him in, either Sons of Anarchy or Pacific Rim, had what I’d consider a strong script. Papillon is no different.
Hunnam isn’t given much to do besides take his shirt off repeatedly and that doesn’t do much for me. I want see a character’s arc, not a character’s abs.
WHAT WAS THE POINT?
But the problem is Papillon himself doesn’t have an arc. He’s there to show the audience the indomitable spirit of humankind. Which means that we have to watch Papillon endure horrible misery after horrible misery after and have him come out unscathed in the end. And that’s just not compelling, cinematically or dramatically.
Rami Malek’s Louis Dega fares a bit better. But, Malek gets to play an interesting character. He’s soft compared to the brutal men he lives among in the penal colony. So Dega has to adapt and change to survive, especially after his protection, Papillon, gets tossed into solitary for three years.
Watching Dega’s transformation was interesting and I was engaged in his story. But we don’t get to spend as much time with Dega as we do Papillon, and the film suffers for it.
All-in-all, Papillon fails, and doesn’t even fail in an interesting way. Visually, it’s inert. The lead actor isn’t given anything compelling to do, and the most interesting character disappears for a large chunk of the movie. If this sounds like a good time to you, maybe you should be sent to a prison colony until you know better.
- 2 hrs and 13 mins
- Bleecker Street