On the surface, Hugo seems like an odd career move for director Martin Scorsese, who’s perhaps better known for his violent, sweary dramas, gangster flicks or music documentaries.
Based on Brian Selznick’s novel, The Invention Of Hugo Cabret, Hugo is a lavish, star-laden fantastical drama starring Asa Butterfield as the young hero of the title, Chloë Grace Moretz as his friend Isabelle, while Sacha Baron Cohen, Jude Law, Christopher Lee, Emily Mortimer, Ray Winstone and Sir Ben Kingsley round out the adult cast.
The story is nominally about young orphan Hugo, who lives in the catacombs of a Paris railway station in the 1930s. Determined to repair a strange mechanical figure found by his father shortly before he died, Hugo sets out to discover the automaton’s hidden connection to grumpy, lonely toyshop owner Georges (Kingsley) and his precocious goddaughter, Isabelle (Moretz).
Really, though, Hugo is about the early history of movie making, and this is Scorsese’s celebration of period cinema. There are visual references to Harold Lloyd’s perilous dangle from a clock face in Safety Last!, and the Lumière brothers’ The Arrival Of A Train At La Ciotat, that students of cinema will adore. Quite what very young audience members will make of Hugo’s leisurely pace and nods to silent film is anyone’s guess.
There’s something quite satisfying, though, about the notion of Scorsese luring a mass audience with the promise of a light period fantasy and hitting them instead with some sneaky intellectual nourishment. For those who share the director’s love of cinema, Hugo’s a treat.
The acting’s great, with Kingsley fantastic as Papa Georges, whose character arc carries him from cruel and cantankerous to somewhere far more sympathetic. I’m less sure about Sacha Baron Cohen’s performance as a hapless, orphan-hating station inspector, with his moments of slapstick and comic relief often getting in the way of Hugo’s more interesting plot developments. Then again, his character does utter the film’s most unexpectedly moving line.
A word or two about Hugo’s 3D. There are some who argue that 3D is the symbol of a medium in decline, or at least a cynical attempt to wrest a little more cash from filmgoers’ pockets. Hugo is like a rebuke to those critics, and a reminder that cinema is and always has been an optical illusion, a trickster’s routine as intricate as a clock mechanism. “Look,” Scorsese appears to say, “Here’s how great 3D can look when it’s applied correctly.”
James Cameron reportedly said that Hugo’s 3D is the best he’s ever seen, and he may be right – this is 3D used to heighten our sense of wonder rather than paper over storytelling cracks. In places, it’s quite brilliant.
Scorsese’s Paris is a saturated, teeming confection that revels in its own artifice – his effects artists and production designer Dante Ferretti haven’t striven for photorealism, but something more akin to a steam punk pop-up book. There are entire wordless sequences, as though Scorsese flirts with the idea of reverting fully back to the visual storytelling of silent cinema. Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour are great in these scenes, which involve a frisson of romance and a pesky lapdog.
Even Scorsese’s diversion into family-friendly territory makes sense with hindsight. His films have often been about those on the edges of society, observing from without; young Hugo is a protagonist in the grand Scorsese tradition of Travis Bickle or Rupert Pupkin – the main difference between him and those memorable maniacs is that he uses his energies to help rather than harm.
The script, on occasion, is repetitive, and Hugo’s young actors sometimes pause for rather too long between lines, when a more urgent pace may have helped the narrative flow a little better – at more than two hours long, Hugo could have done with a bit of tightening up in the editing room.
It’s from a visual standpoint that Hugo excels. It’s about the wonder and melancholy of filmmaking; the joy of creating and sharing ideas, but also the sadness of fading memories and fickle tastes. For most – me included – this will also be their first experience of Georges Méliès’ work on the big screen. Unsurprisingly, it looks beautiful, as though plucked from a dream.
We’ll never get beck to that childlike sense of awe those early viewers felt back when movies were still in their infancy. When we see, in one brief sequence, an audience cowering as a train looms out of the screen at them, we can only feel a little shiver of envy.
In Hugo, Scorsese tries to capture that sense of wonder, like lightning in a bottle. And sometimes, he almost manages it.