Papillon ★★★½

I'm of the opinion that Franklin J. Schaffner wasn't merely a good director, but kind of a great one - he had a real knack for striking compositions that show off the full breadth of widescreen, something that, combined with his collaborations with musicians (especially Jerry Goldsmith), allowed him to infuse his films with a unique flavour that's difficult to describe - a kind of sonorous bigness with a slightly gloomy undercurrent. His great flaw was his inconsistency - his films are technically stunning, but his dramatic skills are less reliably great, which means you get something like Patton, where director and material could not be more perfectly matched, but also something like Nicholas and Alexandra, where a dull script results in a dull film (or worse, something like The Boys from Brazil, where the director seems at a complete loss as to what approach to take).

Papillon is neither a best-case scenario nor a worst-case scenario. Admittedly, the good far outweighs the bad: unlike with Nicholas and Alexandra, Schaffner seems to be doing all that lies in his power to fight the script's deficiencies, and it so happens that this is possibly the film of his that's most reliant on his strengths. Its setting has all the epicness of Patton or Planet of the Apes, if not more, and there's comparatively little dialogue to boot, which means he's free to do a lot that's highly compelling cinematically, from impactful edits to some of the most arresting images he ever crafted (kudos not only to cinematographer Fred Koenekamp but also to production designer Anthony Masters, whose perfect visualisation of the story, from the austere lines and angles of the prison to the rambling vibrancy of the jungle, should have got him the film's second Oscar nomination). The film is also blessed with possibly Steve McQueen's best performance, and a typically fussy but undeniably strong one from Dustin Hoffman. Unfortunately, the film is let down by a draggy screenplay that never really follows through on the buddy-film vibe established early on and generally fails to make its characters compelling and its story emotive.

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