There was really no need for a remake of “Papillon,” Franklin J. Schaffner’s ponderous 1973 epic about Henri Charrière, aka “The Butterfly,” whose experiences in—and escapes from—penal colonies at French Guiana and Devil’s Island were recounted in his 1969 memoir. But if we must have one, Michael Noer’s dutiful, slightly stolid retelling is probably as good as one has any right to expect.
Charrière’s account has been criticized as much embellished, if not largely fabricated, but he was canny enough to cast it as a tale of the indomitability of the human spirit in which he was a heroic figure battling a cruel, vicious system. That’s the way Schaffner and his screenwriters Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple, Jr. presented it, and they emphasized the message by casting Steve McQueen in the title role. He had, after all, been the star of “The Great Escape” a decade earlier (a phrase actually spoken in Aaron Guzikowski’s screenplay).
McQueen’s successor is Charlie Hunnam, fresh from the tribulations he suffered as another historical figure in extremis, British explorer Percy Fawcett, in James Gray’s “The Lost City of Z.” He’s introduced as a burglar in 1931 Paris in what is easily the movie’s least convincing sequence—production designer Tom Meyer has fashioned sets that fail to provide the requisite ambience (situating “Parisian” marquees in the background of street scenes isn’t enough), and the actors make no attempt at accents, reciting the dialogue in bluntly modern tones.
Things improve, however—for the audience, though not for Charrière—when his boss frames him for murder after discovering that Henri has been holding back some of the jewelry from his thefts to give to his gorgeous girlfriend Nenette (Eve Hewson). While being transported to the penal colony in South America, he encounters Louis Dega (Rami Malek, in the role Dustin Hoffman played in the earlier version), a weak, bespectacled counterfeiter he’s sure is carrying a wad of cash on—or rather in–his person. Henri befriends the fellow, promising him protection in return for a promise to bankroll the escape he’s already contemplating. After initially rejecting the offer, Dega reconsiders after witnessing the brutality of the other prisoners and the acquiescence of the guards to it.
At the camp in French Guiana, the men are able to arrange serving on work details together, but not to securing an easy assignment. Henri’s initial attempt to escape by boat fails, and he and Louis learn how implacable the soft-spoken Warden Barrot (Yorick Van Wageningen) can be when, in a particularly graphic scene, they must witness the execution—by guillotine—of a prisoner who has killed a guard in an escape attempt. While they are transporting the dead man’s body for burial, Henri intervenes when a guard beats Dega, and is sentenced to two years in isolation as a result. He survives, partially because of Dega’s secret help but mostly because of his own determination.
Charrière emerges from the ordeal to find that Louis has become the warden’s aide-de-camp, and is now anxious to join in an escape himself. Eventually the two join forces with a couple of other prisoners, hard-bitten Celier (Roland Møller) and cocky young Maturette (Joel Basman) in a more elaborate escape scheme that succeeds in getting them out to sea, though a storm sends them off course and, after some violence, ends in their recapture. Eventually both end up on Devil’s Island, a hellish place from which escape is thought impossible and the prisoners are forced to survive on their own. Henri is unwilling to die there, and plans yet another escape. A coda shows him decades later submitting his manuscript memoirs to a publisher in France.
Noer, along with his cast and crew, present this story in what might best be termed a diligent fashion, avoiding sensationalism and sentimentality while not ignoring the narrative’s emphasis on friendship in the face of grimness. Apart from that opening sequence in Paris, Meyer provides convincing settings, and as shot by cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski the locations (in Malta and the Balkans) stand in nicely for the South American originals. Hunnam cuts a stalwart figure as Charrière, and while meeting the physical demands of the action sequences, also comes across as credibly gaunt during his long stays in solitary; while Malek can’t efface memories of the hyperactive Hoffman, his more subdued turn as Dega is, if less showy, reasonably effective. The supporting cast is fine, with Van Wageningen standing out as Barrot, who conceals his sadism under a veneer of sophistication.
This new “Papillon” is no less doubtful from a historical perspective than Schaffner’s film. It benefits from being a bit less turgid and pretentious, but on leaving it you still might still feel that the Butterfly’s story was not really in need of a second telling.