A true tale based on the devastating and sinister 1969 memoirs of Henri Charrière. Papi, as he was more commonly known was a popular and cunning thief, turned on by his partners in crime and then falsely accused for murder. After being torn apart from his lady love, he’s imprisoned alongside a group of legitimately dangerous inmates who are then shipped off to Colonial French Guiana to pay for their life sentences.
A distinctive tattoo rests on his chest, a butterfly/papillon, a nickname given in conjunction to his ability to commit an offence and flutter away in immaculate escape. Knowing there’s no point in forcing a plea for his case, fleeing is the only thing on his mind and being a crook, this should metaphorically be his forte. We watch him observing the brutes around him, internally analyzing his best option for a successful alliance. It is there his paths cross with Louis Dega (Remi Malek) a millionaire who got busted making counterfeit defense bonds.
Perhaps the most unlikely companion, Dega (Remi Malek) is an unusual and timid chap who wouldn’t last a week in the conditions around him if it wasn’t for Papillon, (Charlie Hunman) who strategically suggests he acts as his bodyguard in return for funding his escape. Already traumatized by the violence around him, (fyi, there’s a lot of brutal violence) Louis decides that this exchange with Papi is essential to his survival.
The initial scene of the inmates arriving to the disreputable penal colony is already alarming. Present inmates loom along the terracing observing the new recruits in silence; they look exhausted in the heat, malnourished, covered in sweat and dirt and this instantly offers the men a visual as to what’s ahead. But, it’s the merciless speech given by the Warden standing next to the horrifying guillotine that will send anxiety through your veins. He insinuates that in attempting to escape their only options are into jungle (where the best thing that can happen to them is starvation) or the sea, with hungry sharks awaiting. And thats only if they manage to break out without getting caught or shot first.
You’d think this would be enough to put any man off the idea of escape, but it seems that here, you’re likely you die, one way or another. A butterfly without wings; during an attempt, they’re deceived by islanders who they thought were helping them in exchange for money, but instead Papi is turned in and locked away in solitary confinement for a horrendous two years.
Left to whittle away in the cold and filth, living on nothing that would sustain him for long, he watches the dead being dragged out one after the other and has to sit in complete silence in a small dark, empty room without even a bed, just a bucket.
Even during his captivity Daga finds a subtle way to communicate with his team mate. This dangerous act of kindness encourages him not to lose faith, but reassures him that the deal still stands. We realize this brotherhood has become something more valuable than food even whilst in starvation and even after Papi’s torturous two years, their determination to save one another from this hell is now even stronger.
Papillon is a real eye opener, brutal in many ways but insightfully educational and if you have a stomach for the countless violent scenes and the harsh reality of what these men went through, I would highly recommend it. An impressive remake of the 1973 movie starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hofman as Daga and Charrière, this new cast exceeds in their ability to captivate your attention and wrench apart your heart strings. Criminals or not, the way these men were treated was undeniably cruel and cold-blooded.
Papillon is out now.
Words by Lisa Coleman @lisa_d_coleman
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