Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jude Law, Richard Griffiths, Emily Mortimer, Frances de la Tour, Christopher Lee.
Hugo is a fascinating and very enjoyable fable set in Paris in the 1930’s. It is also a loving homage to the bygone era of silent film made by a master filmmaker who appreciates his film history. The film’s themes obviously resonate strongly with director Martin Scorsese, who grew up with a love of cinema, and it will also appeal strongly to audiences with a similar penchant.
In particular the film pays tribute to pioneering French filmmaker George Melies, who was renowned for his ability to create amazing visual effects in camera, using time-lapse photography and other tricks. He hand tinted his films frame by frame. Between 1896 and 1914, Melies directed more than 530 films. Following the carnage and destruction wrought by WWI, Melies felt that his entertainments had fallen from favour. In order to save himself from bankruptcy, he was forced to sell the film stock. Many of his films were thought to have been destroyed, the celluloid melted down and recycled.
Our entry into the history and legacy of Melies is twelve-year-old orphan Hugo Cabret (played by Asa Butterfield, from The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, etc). A Dickensian hero, Hugo lives inside the enormous clocks in the Monparnasse railway station. He occasionally ventures outside into the huge station itself to forage for supplies and food. He tries to stay away from the officious station guard (a wonderful Sacha Baron Cohen) who patrols the concourse looking for orphans.
Hugo is fascinated with an automaton, a futuristic robot, the only memento he has left of his clockmaker father (Jude Law), who was killed in a fire. However he has left behind detailed and illustrated notebooks, including his plans to finish the automaton. Hugo has a gift for mechanical things and is trying to repair the automaton, which in itself is a thinly veiled reference to the classic silent film Metropolis. He strikes up a friendship with Isabelle (Kick-Ass’s Chloe Grace Moretz), the adopted daughter of the curmudgeonly shopkeeper Georges (Kingsley) who runs the small toy concession, and who distrusts the young Hugo. But it turns out George’s attitude has been shaped by the disappointments of his past and his frustrations of sacrificing his dreams.
Isabelle introduces Hugo to a fascinating world of books while he introduces her to the amazing world of cinema, which has been forbidden to her. The friendship between Hugo and Isabelle is the key to George’s redemption when they discover that the automaton was originally built for one of Melies’ movies. Aided by a kindly film historian (Michael Stuhlbarg) they attempt to rekindle Georges’ passion for the magic of cinema.
Hugo is based on Brian Selznick’s 2007 illustrated book The Invention Of Hugo Cabret, but Oscar winning writer John Logan (Gladiator, etc) brings a delicate and human touch to his marvelous adaptation. He also gives us brief insights into some of the other regulars of the concourse (played by the likes of Richard Griffiths, Emily Mortimer, Frances de la Tour, and veteran Christopher Lee as a friendly bookseller).
Butterfield gives a nicely rounded and affecting performance as the adventurous and inquisitive Hugo, the sort of role that would once have automatically gone to Freddie Highmore. And Kingsley brings depth, and a compassionate and sympathetic edge to his performance. “Life has taught me that happy endings only happen in the movies,” he says. And this is certainly a movie that has a happy ending, although it doesn’t for an instant feel contrived. Under Scorsese’s direction, the usually over the top and ebullient Cohen (better known for his portrayals of Ali G and Borat) finds an uncharacteristic restraint here, but still manages to bring a farcical touch of humour to his role.
Hugo is an atypical Scorsese film, but it is easily his best film for a long time, and it reflects his passion for cinema and the history of cinema. “Time hasn’t been kind to old movies,” remarks a cinema historian in the film, and therein lies the cautionary message behind Hugo. Scorsese’s love of cinema and reverence for the classics of yesteryear are evident in virtually every frame of this marvellous and heartfelt film.
This is his biggest budget film to date, and the money can be seen on the screen in the lavish sets and his almost perfectionist attention to detail. Regular collaborator Dante Ferretti’s production design is superb, especially his recreation of the interiors of the railway station and the labyrinthine clock towers. Sandy Powell’s costumes are all evocative of Paris in the 1930’s.
Hugo also boasts some of the best use of the 3D technology in a live action film, and Scorsese seems to revel in the potential of this technology. Rather than merely used as an accessory, the process really enhances the film here. The sweeping opening shot as Robert Richardson’s camera soars through Paris’ central railway station is exhilarating stuff. Scorsese even recreates many iconic cinematic moments, including one superb moment that pays homage to the physical comedy of Harold Lloyd. His loving and painstaking recreation of scenes from Melies’ early films, especially his most famous film, 1902’s seminal short sci-fi A Trip to the Moon, is impressive.
The climax is every bit as moving as the classic Cinema Paradisio, which was also shaped by a lifetime love of cinema. Movies such as Hugo are the stuff that celluloid dreams are made of!