- Eddie Harrison
- 25 June 2018
EIFF 2018: Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek impress in a fresh take on Henri Charrière's novel
Given the high-profile projects Steve McQueen turned down – including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The French Connection and Apocalypse Now – it's surprising that his 1973 version of Henri Charrière's autobiographical novel ever got made at all. The story of one man's personal battle with a French penal colony doubled-down on McQueen's iconic role in The Great Escape; Michael Noer's re-telling is considerably less dependent on the Hollywood pizzazz that McQueen and Dustin Hoffman brought to their roles.
Easily identifiable by his butterfly tattoo, Henri 'Papillon' Charrière (Charlie Hunnam) is sent to prison for the murder of a pimp. Ever resourceful, he quickly forms a bond with physically weak forger Louis Dega (Mr Robot's Rami Malek). A series of escape bids lead the two men to the notorious Devil's Island, where Papillon's desire to be free reaches a final, deadly hurdle.
Some of the memorable moments of Franklin J Schaffner's earlier film are missing: there are no crocodiles or lepers here, and less focus on the mental strength required to survive solitary confinement. But there's so much incident in Charrière's book that several films could be filled with alternative choices of events. For much of its duration, Noer's film is a tight two-hander, focusing on the bond between the two convicts, with Hunnam shouldering a leading man role far more adeptly than he did in King Arthur, and Malek giving strong support.
Arguments remain as to whether this survival story needed a retelling, but there is a case to be made for Noer's take being less bloated and more true to Charrière's book. There's also a neat coda designed to put questions of authenticity to rest; Charrière himself accepted that the narrative he sold to his publisher comprised several men's experiences, and this version enjoys a fresh focus on Papillon the man, rather than the myth.
Screening as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2018. General release TBC.