The Screening Room | 'Papillon' a powerful metaphor for troubled times

The Screening Room | 'Papillon' a powerful metaphor for troubled times

When it comes to movie remakes, I've been of the mind that perhaps only bad films, or those that could be retold to reflect modern societal issues, should be redone.

The former is never attempted, as executives play it safe by choosing movies that were done well the first time around and are thus a known quantity. So it came as no surprise when the remake of "Papillon" was announced, as this seminal prison movie is a certified classic of the 1970s that contains a compelling story with mass appeal.

As with most projects of this sort, I couldn't help but think this was a foolhardy exercise, as the 1973 original starred Steve McQueen in one of his finest roles, and director Franklin J. Schaffner's steady hand could hardly be improved upon.

Danish director Micheal Noer's take on the life of French forger Henri Charriere is equally gripping and in many ways measures up to its predecessor, striking a similar tone but going a bit further in showing the horrendous conditions the title character and his fellow inmates had to endure after having been sent to a French penal colony. That the film succeeds is due in large part to Noer's ability to cover a great deal of narrative ground in a brisk, engaging manner and the performances of its two leads.

Framed for murder, Charriere (Charlie Hunnam) is sent to French Guiana in South America to serve a life sentence. Living in squalor, forced to toil to the point of exhaustion on work details and slowly starving to death, he decides the only way he will survive is to escape, something the warden there almost encourages as he knows conditions in the surrounding jungle will likely prove fatal to anyone foolish enough to flee. However, in order to procure a boat and other means, Charriere needs money, so he becomes the protector of convicted forger Louis Dega (Rami Malek), who has a small fortune on his person.

These two fail while attempting their first escape but forge a bond that survives their being separated for years, other foiled bids for freedom and inhumane conditions that threaten to break their spirits at every turn.

The relationship between Charriere and Dega is the key to this film working, as their relationship serves as a metaphor for the enduring hope that keeps both men alive. Hunnam and Malek take on the thankless task of following in McQueen's and Dustin Hoffman's footsteps, respectively, and each accord themselves handsomely. They succeed in putting a distinct stamp on their roles, but most importantly, their chemistry provides a sense of realism to the pair's friendship.

Shooting in Malta and Serbia, Noer creates a distinctive sense of place that effectively drives home how horrendous the conditions that these and other prisoners had to contend with were. Peeling paint, cracked walls and rampant filth all contribute to the sense that these men were treated as if they were trash, with no thought of rehabilitation.

As shot by cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski, the film has a perpetually overcast look to it that effectively accentuates the oppressive nature of these men's existence.

Ultimately, like the best prison movies, "Papillon" is a testament to the power of hope and the tenacity of those who can cling to it in the most deplorable conditions.

An effective metaphor for our tyrannical times, Noer's film powerfully reminds us that only through mutual support and personal fortitude can the oppressed ever hope to overcome those that would rob them of their human dignity.

'Papillon' (★★★ 1/2 out of four)

Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Rami Malik, Tommy Flanagan, Eve Hewson, Roland Moller, Michael Socha, Christopher Fairbank, Brian Vernel and Jick Kent.

Directed by Michael Noer; produced by Ram Bergman, Roger Corbin, David Koplan and Joey McFarland; screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski (based upon the memoir by Henri Charriere).

A Bleeker Street Studios release. 133 minutes. Rated R (violence, nudity and some sexual matters). At Savoy 16 IMAX.

Also new in theaters

"Alpha" a surprisingly effective dog's tale (★★ 1/2 out of four). I've seen my share of dog-and-his-boy stories, and Albert Hughes' is worse than some but better than most.

Taking place some 20,000 years ago, during the last ice age, this unique setting helps distinguish it from similar tales, providing a fresh set of perils where viscous predators and securing a food supply is concerned, while the barren locale effectively underscores the ever-present danger of the elements.

To be sure, the story contains little in the way of surprises, but the energy displayed by Kodi Smith-McPhee and his canine co-star will us to see this through to the end.

At first glance, young Keda (Smith-McPhee) doesn't appear to made of the stern stuff required to be a part of hunting party for his nomadic tribe. Yet it's a rite of passage that he must endure, and he sets out with his father, Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhanneson), who happens to be the tribe's chief.

Keda is much more introspective than his peers and elders, hesitant at one point to finish off a kill and reluctant to revel in the success of the other hunters. However, an accident occurs that separates him from the group and forces him to reach deep within if he wants to survive.

Fortunately, he encounters a wolf that's been separated from his pack, nurses him back to health and, as a result, soon has a loyal friend who will help him survive. Keda names him Alpha, and the relationship they form is quite unique.

In hunting together — the wolf flushes out the prey, the boy delivers the killing blow — these two form a bond based on their mutual interest in survival and admiration for their abilities to adapt and grow. As a result, the bond they form seems quite genuine, so when the audience's heartstrings are yanked, the emotion these scenes render are genuine and poignant.

What with "Menace II Society," "From Hell" and "The Book of Eli" on his resume, one would assume Hughes would be out of his element with this prehistoric tale. That couldn't be farther from the truth, as he renders some beautiful moments while taking an imaginative approach to action beats we've seen many times before; of particular note is a scene that finds Keda trapped under the ice with Alpha frantically on the surface, gazing down and following his master's progress, trying desperately to help. Though we know the outcome, the director is able a degree of unexpected and effective tension.

At the core of the story are the themes that Jack London built his career on. Not only is this a tale of one young man's attempts to survive in a harsh environment, but it also deals with the notion of a wild animal being torn between being domesticated or remaining wild.

In the end, Alpha, like the canine characters in "The Call of the Wild" and "White Fang," is forced to decide whether to run with the pack or stay with his human companion. As with much of the film, his decision will come as no surprise — but the fact that you might be a tiny bit moved by it does.

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