Master director Martin Scorsese’s latest, Hugo – an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s partially true novel – is being promoted as a family mystery and adventure film, but it is most definitely not. It’s a love story. Or more accurately, a story about love.
Like the unending love between father and son, the childlike love of the unknown and also the love it takes to heal broken things. Most importantly though, it’s a story about Scorsese’s own love for the magic of cinema. A story filled with wide-eyed wonder and technical brilliance.
From the moment you’re greeted by the the wonderfully impossible and breathtaking opening shot in Hugo, you’re aware that you’ve entered a world of fantasy. This is a fairy-tale 1930’s Paris, straight out of children’s dreams and pop-up books, at the heart of which lies a sprawling train station.
Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan living in the steam pipe and clockwork infested walls of this Parisian station. Abandoned by his drunkard uncle, he spends his time maintaining the station clocks while also trying to fix the last remaining item of his father’s that he has left: A mysterious automaton (clockwork man) that his father discovered in a museum before his untimely death. To affect the automaton’s repairs he steals parts where he can, mostly from surly Georges (Ben Kinsgley), the owner of the local toy shop, while trying to avoid the clutches of the villainous Station Inspector (Sacha Baron-Cohen).
But when Georges finally catches Hugo red-handed and learns of the automaton, it sets off a series of events that forces Georges to confront his past and Hugo to discover his purpose.
Butterfield’s Hugo, with those wonderfully expressive cobalt eyes, is that most Dickensian of urchins, independent almost to the point of precociousness. He does have a few minor delivery missteps, but overall provides a charming performance. The immensely talented Chloe Moretz though, is perfectly cast as Isabelle, Georges’ wise beyond her years god-daughter, who literally holds the key to the mystery in Hugo’s life.
As the main antagonist and source of most of the film’s levity, Sacha Baron-Cohen does his best Peter Sellers impersonation as the the orphan snatching Inspector. He bumbles his way through scene after scene, and yet with a single, perfectly delivered line transforms his character from pathetic to sympathetic. It’s a nuanced performance that I was definitely not expecting from the oft-times crass comedian.
But it’s veteran actor Ben Kingsley who steals the show with a stellar performance as Georges, a man of complex emotion and broiling past. It’s a performance that’s already garnered him a Golden Globe and deservedly so. Filled with both triumph and tragedy, his tale is what drives most of the 2nd and 3rd acts of the film, and is also the lynchpin behind the resolution of Hugo’s story.
George is understandably the most fully formed character as he is also one of the few characters in the film with a real life counterpart. And it is this real life counterpart – a French pioneer of cinema – that is the intended recipient of director Martin Scorsese’s love letter. It often feels like a personal message of adoration between student and teacher, that we the viewer are just lucky enough to be privy to.
Just like he did with his Kubrickian Shutter Island, here Scorsese employs the same film making sensibilities as that of his film making hero. With Shutter Island, it was a constant feeling of off-kilter paranoia, but with Hugo it’s a palpable sense of wonder and deft visual wizardry.
The film’s production and costume design makes for a beautiful and fully realized dreamscape – which should deservedly collect some of those 12 Oscar nominations – and this almost make-believe world is brought vividly to life through Scorsese’s absolutely masterful use of 3D. I’ve been privileged to see the film in both 2 and 3 dimensions, and I could not believe how much more alive the 3D world seemed. Don’t expect the dodge-in-your-seat gimmicks of less talented directors though, this is a nuanced and perfectly restrained use of the technology that fully immerses you in the world, not distractedly yanking you out of it every few minutes. It is in fact, possibly the best 3D I have ever seen.
However, as much as I loved this film, there is a disclaimer to this review: It is definitely not a film for everybody. In fact, I expect a few contradictory comments pretty soon. Firstly, like I mentioned in my opening, Hugo has been horribly mis-advertised. Taking your family into this film expecting a Disney styled adventure will leave you disappointed and your kids bored, despite the occasional Baron-Cohen buffoonery. It is also a long film, often filled with too much sentimentality for most younger kids to appreciate, and maybe too much for some adults to stomach. But if you’re a lover of all things film, then it is an especially charming and often times touching journey into the origins of this most fantastical of art forms, and how it’s magic can not only touch lives but also repair them.
Last Updated: February 21, 2012