Review: Hugo (U) / Directed by: Martin Scorsese / Written by: John Logan, Brian Selznick / Starring: Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Christopher Lee, Ben Kingsley, Jude Law / Released: December 2nd
Martin Scorsese is reflective in his latest film, it hails back to an era where children enjoyed reading books and were inspired by the movies. It is a romantic look at the past and at the films of George Méliès. Based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick and influenced by Scorsese’s love for early cinema this is an entertaining and educational film for all the family.
Hugo (Asa Butterfield) lives in the walls of a 1930s Paris train station keeping the centrepiece clock ticking and living an isolated existence, until he meets a young girl called Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) and they embark on an adventure of discovery together. The world that Scorsese has created is rich in tone, steam filled and dusty. Clockwork is like magic, orphans are rife and the fantastical cinema of Méliès is no longer in demand after The Great War. You can see every thread of the authentically recreated clothing and the actors have this lavish golden sheen to their skin; the 3D is utilised well and it enhances the surroundings.
The story is slowly presented as each character is introduced; Hugo wanders around the bustling train station coming across a toyshop owner (Sir Ben Kingsley) who questions Hugo’s ownership of a handwritten manual on how to work an automaton. He is then chased across the enchanting set (thanks to the expert eye of production designer Dante Ferretti) by the lean turquoise clad station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) who he manages to escape from through a steamy vista. The scene is set wonderfully. Hugo’s solitude in the busiest of places is used to move the supporting characters’ stories along as he watches their interaction on the concourse of the train station. A love story between the station inspector and a flower girl (Emily Mortimer) is seen through the eyes of a child and presented to the viewer from this detached but charming vantage point.
Christopher Lee joins the story as bookshop owner, Monsieur Labisse, who dotes on Isabelle and warms to Hugo. The bookshop is again, rich in appearance, books piled up high creating a hiding place for the children to get lost in their imaginations and to begin their voyage of discovery. Scorsese also uses the cinema as a refuge when Hugo and Isabelle sneak their way into a theatre to catch a glimpse of the moving picture. Both these locations are portrayed as special, magical places to be and the cautious mood as they (GASP!) hold hands is a lovely nod to a bygone era.
Asa Butterfield’s performance starts off a little creaky but as soon as he is joined by Moretz his acting gets more assured. Moretz is lovely to watch as Isabelle, with her eagerness for adventure and her affection for vocabulary. The interaction between the two and their enthusiasm lifts the film into adventure territory as they lay the foundations of their relationship. Hugo is a nab hand at fixing clockwork mechanisms, and his fondness for an automaton that is the last link to his late father (Jude Law) is extraordinarily fascinating to look at. The automaton is incredibly creepy; its blank expression on a metal canvas is quite disturbing. The casing hides an intricate clockwork interior that comes alive to unlock the secret surrounding its existence.
The first part of the film revolves around the inventive clockwork world that Hugo inhabits, whereas the second half takes the viewer to even more surreal surroundings from the films of Méliès, lovingly recreated by Scorsese. Méliès’ science fiction film A Trip to the Moon, where a spaceship hits the moon in the eye, is brought to the big screen and will delight cineastes and perhaps trigger some interest with those not familiar with his work. Méliès story is a sad one, his work was neglected, he went bankrupt and many of his films were melted down to make boot heels. A pioneer such as Méliès deserves to have his films honoured and Scorsese is the man for the job.
Is it indulgent? Yes. But it is worthy subject matter and Scorsese’s passionate message about the importance of film preservation and his attachment to the films of George Méliès is exquisitely illuminated on screen. He is passing his knowledge onto the next generation and does so extremely well in this finely crafted piece of homage. Nostalgic, heart-warming and beautiful to watch, this is a thoughtful and impressive piece of cinema with a great message at its core.
Expected rating: 7 out of 10
Related reads: Hugo Press Conference