Review by David Baldwin for Mr. Will Wong
Henri ‘Papillon’ Charrière (Charlie Hunnam) is wrongfully convicted of murder in 1930s-era France and is sentenced to life imprisonment in a penal colony on Devil’s Island in French Guiana, South America. He strikes-up a friendship and an alliance with fellow convict Louis Dega (Rami Malek) soon after arriving, and the two begin planning their escape.
Director Michael Noer’s adaptation of the harrowing true story is visually-spectacular. The details and minutiae packed into every scene is staggering, with just as much happening in the foreground as there is in the background no matter how many characters are populating the frame. The Film also makes a spectacular use of Set Design, with every single element feeling just as authentic as the next. The CGI usage here is minimal at best; practically everything looks and feels as if they were taken directly from the 1930s/1940s time period covered by the Film. You can practically smell the grime and sweat coming off of every single character on-screen at any given moment.
That authentic edge trickles down to the inspired pairing of Hunnam and Malek as Charrière and Dega. They work well off of each other’s strengths and do an even better job glossing over their weaknesses. While I question why Hunnam would use his Jax Teller voice for a French character, I cannot complain about how committed he is to the part, even in the Film’s lowest and most degrading moments. Malek does not get nearly as many “showy” scenes, but he gets to have a lot of fun with his smaller role. While they were never going to measure up to the performances from Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman in the legendary 1973 adaptation of Papillon, they still manage to carve out their own renditions of the characters that can stand proudly in their shadows.
Where Papillon falters is in its pacing. Save for two specific scenes, the Film is a sluggish bore that never feels nearly as exciting or as thrilling as this material should. Noer drags his heels through the Film’s 143 minute running time, focusing on multiple elements of Charrière’s incarceration, but he never keen on making the journey feel interesting or compelling. I sat waiting for the moment where the Film would really sink its hooks in me, but found myself struggling to get through it. Even the odd punctuations of brutal violence could not help the Film feel any less dull and mundane. It almost feels like a test of endurance, much like Charrière’s own jail sentence, where anyone watching must bide their time waiting for it to end or find a way to escape at their own peril.
Despite its visuals and performances, the content comes off about as riveting as watching paint dry. The extended running time does not do the Film any favours, and only proves to become a literal struggle even when it’s heart is in the right place.
Elevation Pictures release PAPILLON on Friday, August 24, 2018.