Shit-streaked, blood-soaked and mud-caked, the French penal colony inmates of Papillon make for a compellingly sorry spectacle -- men reduced to the status of animals, their bodies and faces turning to dirty, leathery sinew before our eyes. It's impressive, and imperative: Seeing them like this makes the necessity of escape that much more critical. How could any human survive a day in this place, let alone a year, or two, or 10?
Papillon is based on the writings Henri Charrière (played here by Charlie Hunnam), a Parisian thief who in 1931 was condemned, for a murder he did not commit, to a distant prison in the colony of French Guiana, and spent much of his time there planning his escape. The story was filmed before in 1973 with Steve McQueen as Charrière (nicknamed "Papillon" for the butterfly tattoo on his chest) and Dustin Hoffman as Louis Dega, a meek fellow prisoner and counterfeiter whose hidden money and logistical smarts aided Charrière in his efforts to flee.
This new version, directed by Danish filmmaker Michael Noer, brings to the story a refreshing intensity and sweep, and even a sense of adventure. It's also unflinching when it comes to violence, misery and gore: We feel the savagery of the heat and the hatred, the sheer primordial guck in which these prisoners toil. That in turn makes the call of freedom that much more enthralling, and the rough, barbed alliance between Charrière and Dega (played here by Rami Malek) that much more convincing. Without Charrière, Dega cannot survive. Without Dega, Charrière cannot escape. There's something of a disconnect between the immediacy of Noer's stylistic approach and the unconvincing words the characters are uttering. Even so, the performers are excellent.