Hugo review

Eyebrows were raised (not least from me) when it was announced that the next film by Martin Scorsese was to be a family entertainment, eyebrows raised further when it was revealed that the film would be shot in 3D. Enthusiasm was dampened by an early trailer that made the film look like simplistic B grade kid’s fare (and egregiously featured a 30 Seconds to Mars soundtrack). Well, I am happy to report that the finished film is a triumph, and with not a note of radio friendly Emo rock to be found anywhere.

Set in a phantasmagorical version of 1930s Paris, Hugo (Butterfield) is a young boy living in the walls of the city’s train station. He secretly maintains the complex gears of the station’s many clocks and survives by stealing and scavenging food and supplies whilst trying to evade the Station inspector (Cohen) and his Doberman. Among the victims of the boy’s pilfering is a toymaker (Kingsley), Hugo steals toy parts for his own project, repairing a mysterious metal automaton that he has hidden away. When the toymaker catches him in the act, he confiscates Hugo’s book of sketches and designs for repairs. For reasons that are initially unclear Hugo is desperate to get the book back. For other reasons (just as mysterious) the toymaker refuses. Hugo enlists the aid of the man’s granddaughter Isabelle (Moretz) to help him regain the notebook, and in the process discovers secrets and wonders.

Going in to Hugo, there was already positive buzz building from an early screening at the New York Film Festival where the movie was shown unfinished. The film has also started to figure strongly in the bookie’s Oscar odds. So I was expecting good things, Scorsese is after all, generally regarded as one of the greatest directors alive. However I was unprepared for how good it actually is, and genuinely surprised at how personal a statement this seems to be for the filmmaker. Hugo is at its heart a sincere and heartfelt love letter from Scorsese to the early pioneers of cinema, and a statement about the transcendent power of the medium. There is even a message about the importance of film preservation, a subject about which Scorsese has been extremely vocal. Do not think that this in anyway means the film is a dry and didactic lecture on film history, it is anything but. In fact, perhaps the only word that really fits, is that Hugo is magical. Scorcese’s opening zoom - in which the camera flies over Paris, into the station, along platforms and through steam, skimming the heads of travellers - sets a tone of exuberance and visual invention that does not let up for almost two hours.

John Logan’s script (from Brian Selznick’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret) is terrific. Hugo spends some time hiding in the station walls observing the lives of its regular characters. These incidental characters are as deftly sketched and memorable as those James Stewart observed in Rear Window. While the plot is complex, especially by the standards of modern kid’s movies, it is never boring, and ultimately very moving. Recently I complained that some children’s films were taking steps to ensure that they contained nothing that would upset children or their parents. This is not the case in Hugo, because of the 1930s setting the shadow of the great war is very present, loss and grief are strong themes. Both Hugo and Isabelle have lost their parents, and Hugo risks being sent to an orphanage if caught by the Station inspector. The threats feel very real, even if the world of Hugo is a fantastical version of 1930’s Paris.

Performances are superb throughout, Butterfield’s reading of Hugo is fierce, a child cast adrift in an adult world that is at best indifferent to him, and at worst openly hostile. Moritz is wonderful as a bookworm with a large vocabulary and a thirst for fictional adventure. When Hugo takes her on a real adventure she says “but we might get caught”, “that’s what makes it an adventure” replies a bemused Hugo. Typically this escapade involves sneaking into a cinema to watch Harold Lloyd. Among the supporting cast Sacha Baron Cohen underplays perfectly, and there is a delightful appearance by Christopher Lee. If there is any justice however, acting honours should come the way of Ben Kingsley and Helen McCrory (who plays the toymaker’s wife and Isabelle’s grandmother), and as the story gradually reveals its mysteries their performances will melt your heart.

Scorsese has surrounded himself with his usual group of collaborators and it almost goes without saying that they all bring their A game. Editor Thelma Schoonmaker works for Scorsese more or less exclusively while other directors can only look on enviously. Howard Shore contributes a lush and dramatic score with a gallic inflection. Dante Ferretti’s production design is ravishing. Cinematographer Robert Richardson produces stunning stereoscopic images, it is his first 3D effort also.  

So let’s talk about the 3D. In my opinion the 3D process still has some way to go to really work for live action filmmaking (digital animation is another matter), Scorsese overcomes the limitations of the technology with ideas. Camera tilts reveal vertiginous shafts, a dogs’ snout snuffles the audience, faces loom. Scorsese shows an audience reacting to the Lumiere Brothers’ film Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895), while the film is a flat screen to the actual audience of Hugo, the fictional audience watching rears back is shock... in 3D. With breathtaking boldness Scorsese later mounts a homage in full 3D, allowing a modern day audience to feel just a smidgeon of what must have been have felt watching the film in the 19th Century. Amazingly, rather than be an act of extraordinary hubris, Scorsese pulls this off. Where other filmmakers have reacted nervously to 3D, waffling on about how they don’t want it to be a gimmick, and instead present an “immersive” world for the audience (something I would argue it is technically unable to do at the present time), Scorsese goes his own way and embraces the gimmick. In fact he seems to fall in love with it. Almost every conceivable use of the stereoscopic technology is in this film somewhere. It is the first of the current wave of 3D films that I believe is essential in that format. I cannot decide if Scorsese has opened up a new world of 3D possibilities to these jaded eyes, or if he has actually made the only film you ever need to see in 3D.

Time will tell if Hugo can be regarded as a classic to rank alongside Scorsese’s best work, but right now I can say hand on heart that this is one of the best films I’ve seen in 2011. I utterly adored every frame.

Hugo at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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