Film of the Day (04/23/19): Papillon

Written By Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr
Directed By Franklin J Schaffner

About six or seven months ago, I watched the 2018 remake, and have been curious since that point how it would hold up against its parent film. Having now finally seen it, I can say that the remake, while very well-acted, is plotted nearly identically, begging the question of why it needed to be remade in the first place. However, this is about the former, so I’ll leave the latter alone.

The true story behind this is a remarkable tale of perseverance and hope in the face of a very bleak reality. As prison escape films go, it may not pack the sizzle of a daring heist-style plan being hatched, but it isn’t interested in padding the narrative with extraneous appeak, opting to give us the grim and gritty reality faced by two inmates of an infamous French Guyanese prison. To call it depressing for most of its 150 minutes is a fair assessment, but it makes the finale more rewarding. And, really, how uplifting can we expect a prison movie to be?

Despite the truth behind it, the narrative suffers from feeling too cyclical at times, between the escape attempts and subsequent captures. It feels like the kind of film that needed some editing to pare it down a bit, to help some lag in the middle act. Or, perhaps, instead of losing time, more of it could have been invested in the characters themselves rather than just their plans and actions, to give us more reasons to invest ourselves in their stories.

Prison stories have the chance to really hold up a mirror to society and ask deep questions about crime and the nature of punishment. About the value in all life and its conditions and envinronments. The script doesn’t really get into these issues, and it feels like a missed opportunity.

McQueen and Hoffman are great, really working hard to infuse the screen with personality in a setting without much to spare. The minor characters aren’t as strong but the two leads shoulder the weight. The visual language was strong, selling the isolation aspect beautifully. I especially loved the scenes of Papillon in solitary confinement, gradually giving into insanity but retaining his humanity. There is a specific shot of one of his dreams of freedom that is magnificent, cisually showcasing his attempts to stay mentally upright in a world turned upside down. The score from Jerry Goldsmith is beautiful, and as sparse as it is powerful, only showing up when it is needed but always making a sweeping impact.

This is a solid film, but not a great one, that hits several marks while missing several others.

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