Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek star in this harrowing and darkly inspirational updated film version of Henri Charrière’s acclaimed novel. They play prisoners shipped off to a remote penitentiary in 1930s French Guiana who decide to try and escape the prison’s harrowing conditions, where prisoners are routinely brutalised. No simple remake of the 1973 version (which starred Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman), this film is powerfully directed by Michael Noer (who made Danish prison drama R) and offers epic dramatic adventure.
Right let’s talk about the elephant in the room, I have never read the books and it has been many, many years since I have seen the classic 1973 version, so I’m going into this to see if it stands on its own rather than comparing it to what has come before. This is a gorgeous film, in spite of the grim and brutal situations the main characters find themselves in the cinematography is truly beautiful. The film manages to convey an oppressive claustrophobia within the prison scenes and an almost suffocating silence during the scenes of solitary confinement, juxtaposing all of this with stunning and vast open vistas during an escape. Malek is brilliant in both real and hallucinatory form showing a huge amount of range in his portrayal of Dega and the emotional journey and growth he goes through throughout the film and Hunnam is fantastic in the role of the titular, consistently defiant Papillon. Both the lead actors are on top form for this and the chemistry between Malek and Hunnam feels like a relationship that developed organically into the friendship we see on screen. The epic journey that our characters go through is less a physically travelled one, although they do travel from France to South America, and more of an emotional one. Special mention does go to the makeup artists for their ageing of both actors and to Hunnam for his extreme weight loss, giving him a gaunt emaciated look when returning from solitary, all of which combines into a look that is both subtle and shocking. Whilst I said earlier I wasn’t going to compare this to what has come before, I think it’s worth mentioning that if nothing else this film shares some DNA with the older classic prison films such as Cool Hand Luke and The Great Escape, it does however have an updated grittiness and visceral reality to it and this film very much stands up on its own merits. The supporting cast of characters are all also brilliant and Michael Socha as Julot is a stand out.
At 138 minute it’s not a short film but it never dragged and I was engaged throughout, this is an intense and gritty story of friendship, loyalty and brotherhood.