Leaving behind the Mean Streets and ruthless criminal underworld of America, Martin Scorsese brings us Hugo, a purely family entertainment film that on the surface seems a massive departure for Scorsese, but in reality is possibly one of his most fitting cinematic vehicles. From one of his first short films The Big Shave, Scorsese is famed for his intense and ground-breaking movies. Mean Streets, Taxi Driver Raging Bull and countless others in the Scorsese canon are films that pushed the envelope in cinematic form, style and content. His deep understanding and knowledge of cinematic history always infused his work but was used more as a springboard with which to propel his own style, and evolve the form.
Hugo is entirely a product of Scorsese’s love of cinematic history, and his skill as a revolutionary director. Whilst the content of the film in terms of narrative and themes are not groundbreaking (though I suspect that’s not what you’d find in a family-centric film) it’s Scorsese’s grasp of the 3D technology that is evidence of a relentless cinematic vision beyond that of his contemporaries. The few 3D films I’ve seen have far from justified the extra expense and fanfare that they carry, they make the conscious decision to keep the 3D elements contained behind the screen, (or within the ‘glass box’) adhering to the unwritten ‘pointy stick’ rule that sees 3D protrusions as gimmickry. Unsurprisingly, Scorsese has ignored all unwritten rules and not only makes full use of 3D protrusions, but also creates the most fantastic multi-layered sets and landscapes that really, really show off the capabilities of the technology.
The film in its entirety is a showcase of the magic of cinema, and a master-class in film history for cinephiles and children alike. From the first shot that glides from above the Parisian rooftops through Paris train station, and along the concourse, the contemporary 3D works its charm, but we are entering the time of 1923. The camera alights on a young boy peering out from behind a clock face, high above the train station, watching intently at the scenes of life that play out before him. The boy is Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), an orphan who scuttles between the walls of the station tending to the maintenance and continued accuracy of the clocks within the station. Hugo lives a secret life, his presence unbeknown to anyone, especially that of the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). Much like Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Hugo is a voyeur, a silent spectator to the myriad of stories that unfold at the station and the link between voyeuristic pleasures and cinema-going are already inferred at this early stage, but it’s only much later they become significant.
Within the confines of Hugo’s abode, he meticulously cares for and studies an automoton (a clockwork robot) that was left to him by his father. In a bid to scrounge the necessary components to rebuild the automaton, Hugo is caught stealing items by a toy-stall owner, Georges (Sir Ben Kingsley), whose stall lies within the station. Upon searching the young boy, a notebook containing sketches of the automaton is discovered that obviously hold great significance for Georges and he confiscates the book. This is the catalyst that sets the winding and fantastical story in to motion. Hugo, desperate to retrieve the book, befriends Georges’ god-daughter, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) and between them they begin to uncover an even deeper mystery surrounding the notebook, the automaton and Georges.
Hugo is, to an extent, Scorsese’s childhood alter-ego, with a burning love and fascination for film. He introduces Isabelle to the magic of cinema, and she watches in wild-eyed wonderment at the silent antics of Harold Lloyd in Safety Last! before they are ejected from the picture palace. Together they discover the origins of the cinema, from the Lumière brothers and their presentation of L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station) to the magical mastery of Georges Méliès and his infamous La Voyage Dans La Lune (A trip to the moon). During this discovery comes the revelation that Isabelle’s ‘Papa Georges’ is in fact the eminent film-maker Georges Méliès, albeit an embittered shell of his former self. Faced with the disenchantment of the post-war audiences, Méliès’ work fell out of popularity and so in despair, he shut the door on that period of his life, destroying much of his work. The latter part of the film takes the audience through a wonderful early history of the cinema, with a particular focus on the work of Méliès as he recounts his past. However, it is up to Hugo to revive the once-revered artist from his despair, and remind him what an important role he had in the evolution of the cinematic art.
The story is incredibly imaginative, inventive and funny and bought to life by the fantastic and wide-ranging cast. From the established classical actors such as Sir Ben Kingsley & Richard Griffiths, the increasingly impressive Sacha Baron Cohen (who manages to invoke shades Peter Sellers in this particular portrayal), to the young stars, Asa and Chloe. Both these young actors have huge potential, and Asa in particular impressed me throughout with a depth and maturity beyond his years. To its detriment however, this at first highlighted a rather more eager and childish acting style from Chloe, who seemed to take her direction at face value rather than making it her own, but as the film progressed her performance became more nuanced and resonated nicely with the rest of her co-stars.
The film is entirely appealing, and deserves to be seen for its remastering of cinematic history alone. One cannot help but draw comparisons between Hugo and the wonderful innocence of early cinema, and films such as those created by Méliès. Méliès enjoyed his cinematic trickery, and pioneered so many concepts in the fledgling art form that it seems fitting that his work has been restored to the cinematic consciousness by such a revered director as Scorsese, and alongside such a novel and experimental technology as 3D that one can easily assume Méliès would have