Hugo, based on a children story by Brian Selznick, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the screenplay having been written by John Logan, a departure in Martin Scorsese's oeuvre, admirably captures the illusion of the grain of life in an enclosed environment such as a busy Parisian train station just after the Great War. As such, it is an old fashioned children story, like those we told to our children when putting them to bed, as once upon a time we had the time and energy to do so (if this was ever true I do not know, but it is nice to hold to the idea that it was), told using cutting edge 3D cinematic technology. Has Scorsese advanced the range of this technology for artistic use in contemporary cinema? The jury is out on this one, although I have my doubts. I do think that Hugo could well had been shot in a conventional 2D format without any detrimental effect on the quality of the story telling. Perhaps, it could had worked even better, as I felt that on occasions the technology got on the way of the story itself, almost as if Scorsese, like a kid playing with a new set of coloured pens, got so enthralled with 3D for its own sake that he overlooked the story.
The film follows the story of a boy, the above mentioned Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield, whom we saw in The Boy in the Stripped Pyjamas), who lives in the railway station after been taken in by his uncle after the death of his father in a fire at the museum where he worked. The uncle, a drunkard, also disappeared one day, and Hugo keeps with the task of keeping all the clocks of the station running on time, that was his uncle's job, as he fears he will be taken to an orphanage if he is discovered by the awful station master (a rather magnificent portrayal by Sacha Baron Cohen), a war veteran with a penchant for grabbing street urchins.
The key of the film, and I am playing with words here, is a key he needs to unlock the mechanism of an automaton in his possession, as he believes that it will write a message from his father, who left it to him after his death. The search for this key sets Hugo in a sharp collision with Georges Méliès (a rather cartoonish portrayal by Ben Kingsley, a bit of a rehash of his performance in Gandhi), an old gentleman who owns a toy booth in the station. After his father's sketchbook falls in the hands of Méliès, who suspects that Hugo has been nicking bits and bits from his stall, he manages to enlist the help of Méliès' granddaughter, young Isabelle (a fabulous and sensitive performance by Chloë Grace Moretz), to recover the book, as he needs it to bring the automaton back to life. Isabelle is also an orphan, being brought up by Grandpa George and his wife after her parents died in an accident, jumps in aid of Hugo, as she is screaming for adventure and danger, as most children at that age living a sheltered life do.
Hugo the film is also an ode to cinema itself, to the beginnings of cinema (Scorsese is also being known for funding the restoration of old and forgotten films, as my DVD copy of Wojciech Has' marvellous and intriguing The Saragossa Manuscript in my videoteque testifies), as we all find, including Isabelle, that Grandpa George is one of the forgotten pioneers of early cinema, having developed his career shortly after the Lumière brothers showed to the public the first movie performance, directing, producing and acting in hundreds of films, a career cut short by the war. Unable to restart it, he bought the toy booth for a living, and to raise Isabelle.
Hugo is also one of those rare films which appeals to the young and the old, as it does work on several levels. I suspect that subsequent viewings will bring additional riches to the fore both on the story itself, its background, and the performances.
The performances of the kids is exceptional, Asa Butterfield conveys the intensity of the desire of a child to unlock not only the automation but also his own life, his own destiny, whilst Chloë Moretz' nuanced performance of Isabelle (I understand that she managed to fool Martin Scorsese in believing she is actually English during the audition) living in Paris, a girl eager for adventure, yet who is also a loving and sensitive grand daughter, gets at the heart of her role with an extraordinary breadth and depth of characterization.
Special mentions have to go to all those who constructed the sets and worked in the CGI effects, which created a picture of a Parisian railway station which is both credible and yet still firmly belonging to the realm of story telling). I have to say that I am not still convinced by the 3D technology which, in spite of Scorsese's efforts to tame it, felt too often as no more than gimmick, distracting me from the humanity of the story itself.
However, in spite of my persisting reservations about the technology itself, Hugo has gone into my long list for the 10 best films I have watched in 2011, being not only old fashioned story telling at its best, but also an ode to cinema itself, admirably realized and with an enthralling performances by Asa Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz.
To see the making of Hugo, please click HERE.
Text revised on 15 December 2011.