Film buffs would have seen, and probably remember, the 1973 film starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, based on the book, Papillon, by Henri Charrière, who recounted his own extraordinary story of courage and irrepressible spirit. The same buffs are likely to see its remake, directed by Dutch filmmaker, Michael Noer, admire its merits (fabulous cinematography, for one) and wonder, nonetheless, why it needed to be produced at all?
Since the original Papillon, there have been several other films based on brutal prison life and escape attempts, so the novelty has worn off over the years. And so, in the new film, prison clichés abound.
Charrière is nicknamed Papillon (butterfly in French), because of the tattoo on his chest, but it also symbolises his desire for freedom. He is wrongly accused of murder and is sentenced to life in a penal colony in French Guiana. On the way there, he befriends Loius Dega (Rami Malek), who offers to help him escape.
Conditions in prison are inhuman, and the hope of escape is a way of staying sane, even though a failed attempt means two hellish years in solitary confinement. Outside is the verdant beauty of the island and inside, the unremitting horror of life under the cruel (is there any other kind?) warden Barrot (Yorick Van Wageningen).
There the strong bond between Papillon and Dega builds, surrounded as they are by the evil, mistrust and violence of the generic prison drama. The two actors, have worked hard — reportedly starved to get that gaunt look — but for the audience sitting through the grim movie, there is no real reason to do so, not even a soaring feel of catharsis. The story is known, there are no surprises and the memory of the earlier film and its charismatic stars always remain at the back of the mind. It is unfair to the younger actors to be faced with that comparison.