Even though I’m a sucker for biopics and bloated costume dramas, I never really paid much attention to Papillon.
Synopsis: Based on the international best-selling autobiographical books “Papillon” and “Banco,” Papillon follows the epic story of Henri “Papillon” Charrière, a safecracker from the Parisian underworld who is framed for murder and condemned to life in the notorious penal colony on Devil’s Island. Determined to regain his freedom, Papillon forms an unlikely alliance with quirky convicted counterfeiter Louis Dega, who in exchange for protection, agrees to finance Papillon’s escape. (Elevation Pictures)
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Rami Malek, and Eve Hewson
Writer: Aaron Guzikowski
Director: Michael Noer
Rating: 14A (Canada)/R (United States)
Running Time: 133mins
It was probably due to either false perceptions of the narrative or the lack of exposure to the film, always seemingly brushing it off at most glances. While watching the film, it was clear why it didn’t pop out in italicised bold but also it’s strengths when it comes to conveying its tale. Papillon is the true story about an unlikely friendship between a man wrongly convicted for murder named Henri ‘Papillon’ Charrière (Hunnam) and a convicted counterfeiter named Louis Dega (Malek), and how they attempt to flee a prison named “Devil’s Island”.
Looking back on Noer’s abrupt introduction to our characters and their circumstances, Pasolini’s Salo certainly comes to mind as a possible influence. Mainly because of their shared use of showing rather than telling and the use of dominant/submissive camera angles when we are introduced to “Devil’s Island”. Unlike Salo, this film is somewhat justified in what these sequences of tone establishment build up to.
It’s a little part hard to find a monumental reason to care about anything that’s going on. The screenplay mostly resides in the hopes that covering such a grand tragedy like this would make the film visceral emotionally but any mental stakes reside in the performances of Hunnam and Malek. The duo aren’t just incredibly likable but also enjoyable enough to watch on screen for two hours and 15-some minutes. Malek continues to surprise with how much depth he can put into his performances, after slightly becoming concerned that he would embody Elliot Alderson for the rest of his career. These two are the grand saviors of this film and when you begin to focus on their surroundings, it becomes slightly fickle in appearance.
The pacing is justified in its slow-burning sense; attracting attention via moments of extreme tension. It just needed to felt more eventful/if there were actual stakes. Right now, it just rubs on awkwardly and felt like watching a treasure map with blatantly defined destinations and detours, rather than a suspenseful story. Those few moments of tension were heightened from mundanity due to Noer’s raw and observant camerawork, that lies in the blissful grey area between shaky cam and repetitive stillness. The director deserved some commendation for that purpose because, judging by his filmmaking here, he seems to experiment with unrealized tactics to achieve a certain result, much respect to him on that note.
At the end of the day, it feels like this should be far more impactful than it initially is. The film leaves a few seconds of subjects to ponder but winds down almost immediately. There are a few sporadic moments of true power and talent, for sure, but they ultimately feel utilized in the wrong fashion. It is a perfectly fine film, nothing more, nothing less. Die-hard fans of costume dramas and biopics should find plenty to enjoy here but aside from that, nothing really sticks out here. This is the definition of a time killer on a rainy Sunday afternoon, it works effectively in that right; their hearts were in the right place, just with the incorrect approach.