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Papillon review - Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek make a magnetic pair

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Verdict: a brilliantly moving story of survival

Based on the autobiography of the man himself, Papillon follows Papi (Charlie Hunnam), a charming Parisian thief framed for murder who must undergo the terrible trials of prison camp in French Guiana in 1931.

Along the way he is befriended by skinny billionaire Louis Dega, Rami Malek in yet another fantastic performance, who promises to fund his escape in return for protection. 

The entire film has an almost dreamlike quality, hazy lighting and lively music drawing the audience in to Papi’s lavish Paris lifestyle before it all goes terribly wrong. Harsh prison conditions contrast visually with the lush jungle of their surroundings, and the cinematography throughout is absolutely stunning.

Hunnam delivers a taut and sophisticated performance as Papi’s superhuman determination keeps him going through extreme physical and mental torture. It’s particularly impressive to see him balance an intimidating physical presence with tenderness as he grows to care for the man under his protection. 

The bond between the two of them is incredibly compelling, but after seeing Malek’s performance in Bohemian Rhapsody, it’s hard not to see it as a waste o this talents to be playing second fiddle. He does a great job with the material he’s given, managing to poke some laughs out of situations that really should not be funny, but Dega’s character is a little thin: both damsel in distress and wealthy benefactor, but somewhat lacking in depth.

That being said, both Malek and Hunnam are what make this film fantastic. Purists may prefer the classic Steve McQueen/Dustin Hoffman adaptation from the 70s, but the 2017 film is a less highbrow and more grounded interpretation. They both have their merits, and in this age of zero originality in cinema, one might ask why this particular classic needed a remake. Well, it certainly succeeds in bringing the story to a whole new generation, and does so powerfully with somewhat lesser known actors taking on the roles, allowing the characters and story to shine.

Hunnam has had some brilliant action-man roles in Pacific Rim and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, but Papillon really gives him the scope to deliver a brilliant dramatic performance. A sentence to years in silent solitary with minimal sustenance leads to a hypnotic sequence where he has the audience literally holding their breath so as not to disturb the atmosphere. A brief foray into madness is certainly risky business in film, but Hunnam carries it off as well as he does the fight sequences. This film marks the start of a long and interesting career that not many would have predicted.

The film is a love letter to the indomitable human spirit, but also a harsh and deliberate condemnation of the prison industrial complex that still unfairly convicts and imprisons countless innocent people. The flip side to “wow, how brave he is for enduring all this,” is an examination of how brutally unjust the entire institution is, that he should have to endure it at all.

Be prepared for an insane rollercoaster of emotions that will have your hanging on the edge of your seat at times, and fighting back tears at others. 

Papillon flutters into cinemas on December 24th.

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