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Pure escapism in the nick of time

04 January, 2019 — By Dan Carrier

Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek in Papillon

PAPILLON
Directed by Michael Noer
Certificate 15
☆☆☆

FORGET what you have seen in the past: the original came out 45 years ago and its leads, Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, were global superstars. Henri Charrière’s book had been a bestseller, translated into numerous languages.

Now the story of “Papillon” Charrière, a small-time safe cracker framed by fellow hoodlums for the murder of a pimp and sent to do time in a penal colony in French Guiana, is being faithfully retold.

It is a rather a moot point whether we needed a second telling – here it is to transport us from the streets of pre-war Paris to the steaming jungles and stifling atmosphere of a violent prison regime.

Papillon (Charlie Hunnam) is not going to sit back and serve his time. On the boat over, he meets and befriends forger Louis Dega (Rami Malek) and, aware he has seemingly endless pound notes rolled tightly and secreted up orifices, he decides to offer him protection in return for some funds towards making good his escape.

We are treated to brutal prison guards, psychopathic wardens, and deranged prisoners – all out to maximise the damage they do on the pair.

Escape attempts are launched, years are spent in solitary confinement, muscles are wasted away and then built up again, and hairs go grey as Papi is shoved into different hell holes of varying degrees of nastiness, eventually arriving on the seemingly escape-proof Devil’s Island, a cliff-ringed tropical rock.

The original was helped along by the star quality involved. While Hunnam and Malek do not have quite the same presence, in a small way, this helps: it means the viewer does not need such a leap of imagination.

It is a well-made film, shot in great locations, the claustrophobia of incarceration seeps through. For a younger generation of new viewers, who won’t have seen the original, it has the air of Netflix’s long-running drama Prison Break. It is a cleaner and sanitised tale for millennials. Does this matter too much?

No. The circumstances our heroes find themselves in are enough to make us want them to survive, and then succeed in their aims of getting away in one piece, and living to highlight the brutal, inhumane regime those who had committed crimes were subjected to.

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