You are assembling a puzzle, and with every piece you assemble you become more certain that a piece is missing. By the end, you can see the missing piece that left the whole puzzle comprehensible but difficult to get. Papillon was also missing a vital puzzle piece, one that could have made it unforgettable.
Papillon is a feature about the story of French prisoner Henri “Papillon” Charrière, a safecracker who was framed for murder and sent to the French colony of New Guinea to serve his sentence. The film follows Papillon (Charlie Hunnam) as he plans to escape from prison, but lacks the money he needs to buy a boat. Papillon strikes a deal with a rich counterfeiter named Louis Dega (Rami Malek), and as the pair become friends and matters worsen with more than one failed escape, Papillon has to hold on to his sanity during long years of solitary confinement.
There is nothing especially novel about this plot, especially since it is a remake of a 1973 film. However, the film does have admirable aspects that will remain with audiences after they have left the theatre.
The depiction of Papillon’s time in solitary where “silence must always be kept” and his resistance of going mad was captivating. The hallucinations, the counting of his steps, and even a muffled scream, all provide gruesome details that had audiences wondering what they would do if they were ever in such a situation, and how long it would be before they went mad.
The film is very well shot with interesting lighting and memorable frames, like Papillon and Dega standing on the high edge of Devil’s Island overlooking the ocean, and the minimal highlight on Papillon’s face when he is first put into darkness.
However, the film was lacking a major element: depth. The film did not delve deep into the friendship that developed between the two characters. This left audiences not knowing why Papillon risked his life and his freedom more than once for Dega, and confused by the events that seemed very disjointed. The film did not show that the two had anything in common, there was no turning point that took their relationship from deal partners to friends. There was also no sense provided to the audience on why, after all these attempts, Dega realises he does not want to escape; the only explanation provided was Dega saying “I belong here.”
The film could have also done with going deeper into each of the character’s mindsets, as well as spending more time on the infamous Devil’s Island. These elements would have provided better insight, making the movie far more interesting than it was.
Charlie Hunnam is convincing as a prisoner, and especially excels in the solitary scenes with extreme weight loss and evocative expressions. However, since the film does not really delve into his character, audiences do not get an adequate amount of attachment to Papillon. Rami Malek suffered more with the film’s superficial take on his character; his role was reduced to a sidekick who is always being saved or being appalled by his situation and environment.
It’s a long feature with some worthy parts, but whether these parts are worth the 135-minute sit-down is debatable.