Principal Cast : Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Jude Law, Chloe Grace Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helen McRory, Emily Mortimer, Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour, Ray Winstone, Christopher Lee, Michael Stuhlbarg, Kevin Eldon, Gulliver McGrath, Angus Barnett, Ben Addis.
Synopsis: A young boy working inside the walls of a Parisian train station works at rebuilding an old automaton, only to discover a strange link to a long-dead film director.
Marty makes a film about film.
Imagine watching Hit Girl with an English accent. Kinda takes the edge off Kick-Ass as a film, doesn’t it? I went into Hugo with absolutely no preconceived ideas about what I’d see, but I have to say, even I was surprised with directing legend Martin Scorsese’s decision to cast American starlet Chloe Moretz in the pivotal English-accented role of Isabelle. Whether Moretz pulled off the upper-class accent is something you’ll have to read further into this review, but I admit to a little shell-shock the first time she appeared and opened her mouth to speak. In fact, I admit to knowing almost nothing about this film beforehand other than it was directed by Scorsese, had a debut performance by Asa Butterfield, and also starred Ben Kingsley. Thankfully, an inability to scour Wikipedia had prevented me from learning what the film was actually about – so everything within it was a complete surprise. Having now scrolled the pages of Google as research for this review, I’m pleased to re-learn that the film did indeed snag a couple of Oscars earlier in the year (I did see the ceremony, it’s just taken a while to get around to seeing the film, and my memory of the Oscars ain’t so hot – call it “Oscars Booze”…) and if I may be so bold, state right here that this might be my favorite Scorsese film ever. Why? Because it’s a film about film, and those kinds of movies always rate highly with me.
Paris, 1931, and a young boy named Hugo lives in the walls of Gard Montpanasse in Paris, ensuring all the clocks keep correct time, and making repairs to their mechanical nature as required. Hugo is an orphan – his father (Jude Law) died in an explosion, and his drunken Uncle (Ray Winstone) has vanished – and he spends his free time spying on the train station’s inhabitants and their lives, as well as working on repairing a robotic automaton his father salvaged from a museum collection. The automaton requires a special key to make it work, and is the last piece of a puzzle Hugo has as a link to his father. Hugo runs into trouble in the form of Papa Georges, who runs a toy repair shop in the station, whom to his horror takes possession of a notebook belonging to his deceased father. A strange connection to the notebook, and the images of the automaton, lead Hugo and Papa Georges’s goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) on a mystery solving quest to determine just what that link might be. Isabelle, Hugo learns, has the key required to make the automaton work, although just why she’s in possession of that key merely adds to the mystery they face. As they uncover the clues the automaton presents, they come closer to discovering the link the creation has with the birth of cinema.
Very Mild Spoilers Ahead.
Hugo starts off with a decidedly confused air of surety – it knows it’s a film, but for the first ten or fifteen minutes, it didn’t feel like it quite knew what type of film it wanted to be. It was beautiful, certainly, and the production values were – nay, are – breathtaking, but it all seemed a bit discombobulating to begin with, before Scorsese hit his straps and delivered a truly magnificent, heartwarming film. Just remember the name Georges Méiliès. Méiliès, for those too lazy to search online, was a French filmmaker in the earliest days of cinema, having developed his own movie camera, and a pioneer of editing techniques and styles still in use today. You see, Hugo revolves around Méiliès’ work, in a roundabout kind of way, although the film takes its sweet time getting there. What begins as a fanciful love-letter to pre-WWII French life is actually a love-letter by Scorsese to one of cinema’s earliest pioneers, and perhaps it’s greatest innovator. The mystery surrounding Hugo’s magnificent automaton, and its function as the film’s central MacGuffin, is perhaps less important than key moments late in the piece revolving around the discovery of Méiliès as a hitherto ignored filmmaker long thought dead.
The story is based off the pages of Brian Selznick’s novel, The Invention Of Hugo Cabret, which has simply been shortened here to Hugo, and one can understand Scorsese’s interest in turning this book into a film – it simply reeks of a love of the medium, something Scorsese has also, and you can imagine the glee with which he would have approached the films-within-a-film moments Hugo employs during extended flashbacks from time to time. At first, I thought Hugo was going to be some kind of childhood mystery around the automaton, but it really isn’t: it’s a mystery around Ben Kingsley’s mysterious, sad and lonely figure of Papa Georges, who sits alone and disconsolate – and somewhat angry with the world – at the counter of his toy repair shop. The film’s diverting herrings include a romance between a nasty Station Master, Inspector Gustave, played with eye-watering perfection by Sacha Baron Cohen, and the local flower seller, played by Emily Mortimer, as well as a romance between patisserie Madame Emilie and Monseigneur Frick, who are held apart by the actions of Madame Emilie’s angry little dachshund. Throw in the creepy bookseller, wonderfully essayed by an underused Christopher Lee, and cameos by Jude Law and Ray Winstone, and there’s plenty of sub-plotting and textural nuances within the film to keep audiences guessing, if not always intrigued.
Hugo, by its very nature, feels European in tone, with that whimsical style seen in films like Amelie, although its darker nature, not the least actuated by Hugo’s orphaned status and his constant fear of capture by Inspector Gustave, allows a more sombre tone to descend when required, without seeming out of place. Scorsese makes deft use of the film’s stunning set design and attention to detail (this film was a blast in 3D by all accounts, but since I’ve sworn off 3D I have only seen Hugo in “normal” 2D – and it still looks bloody amazing!), and I can certainly applaud the Academy’s decision to award his film an Oscar for cinematography. Robert Richardson’s work here is, with the exception of the Kill Bill duo and previous Scorsese film Bringing Out The Dead’s magnificent and vastly underrated lensing, easily the best he’s done. Scorsese is certainly a man who knows how to craft a film, not only from a character perspective but from a simple technical angle as well – he “gets” film more than almost anyone else alive today – and it’s perhaps a sense of serendipity that he decided to make a film about films.
The cast are, by and large, excellent, even the smaller roles seem to have nuance and credibility instead of being just wallpaper. Asa Butterfield, in the central role of Hugo, acquits himself well but does fall into that newbie trap of “stage acting” instead of “natural acting”, and there’s moments in the film when you can see Scorsese off-screen pointing and prodding him to act a certain way. Butterfield has a certain look, I’ll grant him that, but I think with time and maturity he’ll grow into a genuinely terrific little actor – here, however, he often feels overawed by those he’s acting with and it does show in his performance. Chloe Moretz, who dazzled audiences and critics alike as Hit Girl in Kick-Ass, feels the most out-of-place performer in the film: she’s sporting some kind of British or European accent that more often than not just grates like iron. Her physical performance and the emotion of her character shine through (she’s too good an actress for this not to happen) but the accent just clunks out of her mouth with the grace of a drunken skank.
Also central to the film is the work of Ben Kingsley, here playing Papa Georges, and he’s wonderful. His character is carefully crafted, well defined within the context of the film, and comes across as a mixture of Fagin and William Hartnell’s Doctor Who. He’s sharply angry for the first half of the film, until his eventual identity is revealed and he can relax somewhat; were I a less discerning critic, I’d have been annoyed at the sharp turn his character takes towards the end, but I think it works so well within the context of the story, and Kingsley sells it so well, you can forgive Scorsese any cutting-of-corners to get the job done. Helen McRory backs Kingsley up as Madame Jeanne, his wife, and in my estimation brings perhaps more heart and soul to her character than even Ben Kingsley himself. Her character is a bit of a crushed wanderlust, who aches for a return to another time (through her husband) when she was happiest, and it’s her critical decisions late in the piece that catalyze the plot to its full conclusion. McRory does a top job.
Scorsese’s love passion for cinema of all types overflows onto the screen in this film – it’s a film about the creation of film, and in this style, Marty bangs a home run. The story of how the Lumiere Brothers (again, French) invented a system allowing them to present films to the general public created a sensation in the day – a simple film of a train pulling into a station and moving towards the camera caused initial panic by those who thought the train was actually going to come out of the screen – and this sensation is hinted at by Scorsese’s use of an actual train busting through a train station in a similar way to what Méiliès filmed in his early days; this incident is based on the real train accident occurring in 1895, some 40 years prior to this film. The hints and Easter Eggs scattered through the film are thoroughly enjoyable to any fan of the film medium, although if you don’t spot them all it won’t lessen your appreciation of the movie in general. The sheer exultation of Scorsese in his element is one of life’s great joys, I think. I could listen to the man talk about cinema for hours, such is his breadth and wealth of knowledge of the medium, so to see him deliver such a poetic love-sonnet to the world he loves is indeed sublimely gorgeous. Of special mention too is Howard Shore’s evocative and timeless score for the film, the Frenchified orchestrations and sense of awe and wonder just melt inside the story and become part of the film itself – the sign of a good soundtrack is when you don’t notice it evoking an emotional response, or for that matter even noticing its existence in any way – and I was dumbstruck to learn it was the same dude who produced the score for Lord Of The Rings. Man, this guy is awesome, isn’t he?
If I was to pick a point on the film I didn’t like, or was in any way a negative, it’s that the opening feels a little clunky, before Scorsese’s story finds it feet. The character of Hugo himself takes a while to develop, and coupled with Butterfield’s somewhat stagey performance style, inhibits a real connection with the audience at first: but man, once things click, they click big time. The creation of the automaton, the central device by which this story swiftly develops once Hugo finds his missing key, is indeed a marvel (I do wonder how much was practical and how much was digital – personally, I suspect it was entirely practical!) and you almost get the sense it’s about to come to life at times. Spoiler: it doesn’t. If that’s all I didn’t really like about the film, however, then that’s not doing too badly, considering just how much I ended up enjoying it. I didn’t think I would, to be honest, because about ten minutes in I was wondering if I was going to have to disagree with the majority of reviews I’d read on this movie (which was only a few, but still quite positive): thankfully, however, I can add my tiny voice to the chorus of positive responses to which Hugo has engendered.
To conclude: I allowed myself to be sucked into Hugo’s world, and I came away more than happy with what I saw. As a film, it’s truly gorgeous, right up there with the best lensed movies I’ve ever seen, with every frame simply a postcard-esque homage to the period in which the story is set, and coupled with a palpable love of the cinematic medium just oozing into every frame of this opus, I’m so glad I kept myself somewhat in the dark about it from a story/character perspective. Going into this cold was the best thing I could have done. It’s a stunning film, with a few minor flaws to keep it from a full mark of 10 stars, but a stunning film nonetheless. As entertainment, you’ll not often see better.