TIFF Review: ‘Papillon’ is a Good But Unnecessary Film

The film with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman was sold as a great adventure, but was instead a powerful character study of a man who refused to be caged. There was little thrilling about it. Directed by Oscar winner Franklin J. Shaffner, it was reasonably successful when released in the seventies but barely mentioned today. That there is a remake is surprising to me.

This finely made remake of the 1973 film feels less like the star vehicle the first was for Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. It is grittier, tougher, more honest I think, but still, as the first was, lacks in areas. As a prison drama goes it works, but as an escape film, I had some issues.

Big ones. There seems to me to be gaping plot holes throughout this remake that the filmmakers just seemed to ignore hoping we would do the same.

Henry, known as Papillon, or Pappy, is wrongly accused of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment on a prison island, eventually sentenced to the hell that was Devil’s Island. The conditions are horrific, he is surrounded by murderers, rapists and thieves, and he is hellbent on one thing…escape. While in the ship transporting him to the island he meets Dega (Rami Malek) a convicted forger who buys his protection. They will however trusting they are at the beginning become good friends, allies and true partners. Not a day goes by during his imprisonment does Papillon not think of escaping, always scheming, always working an angle. It is his obsession, likely what keeps him alive. Yet we are never let in on these angles.

Where I struggled with the film was in their escape plans. How do they come to buy a boat? Where does he get his information? How do they make the contacts they do to pull off what they try? At one point Papillon is in solitary confinement for two years, yet comes out burning to escape and with a plan? How in solitary, without seeing the lay of the land or having no contact with anyone can he have a plan? How much money does Dega have stuffed into his anus? It seems to be an everlasting supply? Why does Papillon trust those so obviously untrustworthy? With so many guards, how is it they just walk right out of the prison? Why trust the nun?

Just so many questions that rendered the film, eventually, silly. Too bad because a great deal of work went into make ngbit, the details are interesting and the production design outstanding.

Charlie Hannam is very good as Papillon but Rami Malek steals the film as the weak but cunning and fiercely loyal Dega. Malek first came to attention in The Pacific for HBO, and now is an Emmy winner for Mr. Robot on network TV. He is outstanding as the brilliant forger, who knows he needs Papillon to survive the first few months. However when his protector is sent to solitary confinement for two years, he manages on his own to survive, even securing a good job with the cruel warden. When Papillon comes back there is a nasty scar on Dega’s face, so we know he suffered, but he also persevered.

It is a good film, I am not sure a necessary one. Someone thought so. It does present a remarkable study of hope, though we saw a greater one in The Shawshank Redemption (1994).

Rating: 2.5/5