“Filmmaking is not about the tiny details, it’s about the big picture!”
This is a line from the 1994 biopic Ed Wood when the iconic title character tried to explain why it didn’t matter if the graveyard he’s shooting his movie in is obviously fake. Whether or not the real Ed Wood actually said this, it’s actually the antithesis to what makes good movies and something that should be highlighted today more than ever before. With all that can be done with special effects and computer technology, the tiny details that are well thought-out are details that can make a movie truly memorable. The subtle camera tricks in Birdman, the set designs of The Royal Tenenbaums and the editing of Hot Fuzz are all examples of background fodder that are like support beams to what holds up something deemed an instant classic. On the flip side of that is what happens when certain details of a movie are missing so obviously or so frequently that it derails a promising picture.
Case in point: Papillon. In 1930s France, Henri Charriere (Charlie Hunnam) is a smooth-talking thief for a local gangster and swinging with a dancer (Eve Hewson). One morning, he’s framed for murder and sentenced to serve time in the penal colony of French Guiana. Desperate for a means of freedom, he befriends a wealthy forger named Louis Dega (Rami Malek) who is clearly out of his element and has smuggled in enough money to buy some form of escape. Despite being polar opposites, the two team-up to find a way off the prison island and keep their sanity while hope is almost certainly lost.
This is the second feature-film adaptation of Charriere’s memoir after the 1973 original starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, not to mention the script by Dalton Trumbo. Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband, Prisoners) is no Trumbo, as his dialogue is mostly cribbed from every other prison-break movie ever made and offers little to no inspired moments. Papillon feels very routine and, despite being 133 minutes, incomplete. The development of its characters are unfinished, plot points are rushed and motivations and emotions are outright explained by characters in a lazy way as if the actors are also meant to be living cliffnotes for the audience. The most egregious detail of Papillon is the actors using mostly American or British accents even though the movie takes place exclusively in France. This might be excusable if it was made clear that this version of the movie (for whatever reason) took place in Britain or America since Hunnam, a Brit, is sporting an American accent for some reason. Malek has something of a low-European growl akin to a Bond villain with his line delivery while other accents heard range from Irish to Brooklyn. It’s a detail to point out that might seem nitpicky, but it’s harder to ignore when it’s so blatant throughout the movie.
That’s not to say the movie is a complete failure. Director Michael Noer (Northwest) has some fantastic sets to work with, ranging from the luscious recreation of Paris outside of Moulin Rouge to the use of Montenegro and Serbia as recreations of the desolate penal colony. Noer and cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski (The Lives of Others, The Young Victoria) mix the blues of the sky and the dark with the brown of the dirty penal colony to capture some rather gorgeous imagery. After a rocky start, the movie actually becomes interesting when Charriere is locked in solitary confinement for two years and the movie features almost no dialogue for about 30 minutes as he struggles to hold onto any semblance of sanity. This also serves as a helpful reminder that Hunnam can be a very captivating actor simply on body movement and facial expressions. Even with flat dialogue, Hunnam and Malek manage to fill their roles well and have some decent chemistry together. Hunnam himself is a solid leading man with physical presence and emotional weight to what happens to him. It just highlights the fact that both of these leads deserve a much better script than the one handed to them because they make it bearable as the movie goes on.
Papillon has the scale and most of the technical details to make for a compelling prestige drama, but it’s ultimately sunk by the numerous holes it has in its structure. It’s unclear whether or not this was done out of laziness or the scale of the project, but it ends up cutting the movie off at the legs. Which is a shame because there is clearly potential in Charriere’s story and most of it is done right. But the movie’s errors that stare the audience in the face are as heartbreaking as the sunlight that looked Charriere in the face from his prison island.