With the fantastic ‘Hugo’, based off Brian Selznick’s Caldecott winning children’s novel, Martin Scorsese returns to a measure of his former glory.
It’s always interesting to watch a filmmaker testing new waters, and in Hugo, a PG-rated big-budget family picture, the great director attempts a genre and format he’s never done before. The result is a rich and rewarding experience–made with craft and care– that proves a strong venue for Scorsese’s passion and adoration for filmmaking. In Hugo’s simple but expressive story there’s a bit of the artist’s own reflection staring out.
Set in a Dickensian world of orphans, steam engines and mysterious shopkeepers, Hugo opens with a sweeping aerial shot of Paris circa 1931. Then, in the diving view of the camera we are whisked away into the Gare Montparnasse train station, past bustling patrons, until we see the eyes of a young boy peeking out from behind a great clock. This young man is Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), a 12 yr-old orphan who has been living in the walls of the station and looking after the clockwork since his father’s death and his drunk uncle’s disappearance.
From his perch above the comings and goings of the thoroughfare, Hugo observes and watches with great interest. Below, there’s an entire world of secret drama playing out, including the menace of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Station Inspector, a fastidious man with a wounded leg and heart, who splits his time between catching orphans and getting the courage up to approach the pretty little flower girl, Lisette (Emily Mortimer). There’s also a grumpy toy shop owner, Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley), who hides a secret pain beneath an exterior of brittle gruffness, and his young goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Moretz) who befriends Hugo after he’s caught trying to steal from the shop’s supply of gears and cogs. Hugo needs these pieces to fix the clockwork automaton he’s been rebuilding, a robotic marionette of a man that his father rescued from a museum attic and was attempting to fix before his untimely death. There’s a keyhole in the robot, and Hugo believes with that key he will discover the automaton’s secret, and ultimately, a message from his father.
Without spoiling any of the film’s surprises, it can be said that all these characters end up factoring into the outcome of Hugo’s adventure, with Melies and Isabelle sitting at the very center. The mystery itself is less a shadowy drawing room affair than it is a truth hiding in plain view of the audience, waiting patiently for the characters to make the connections for themselves. There are chase scenes both humorous and exciting as the Station Inspector and his canine sidekick chase Hugo between trains, over café crowds and into the whirring machinery of the clockworks. Isabelle and Hugo take trips to a bookstore overseen by the kind yet crusty Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee) where they search for clues to unlocking the automaton’s secret. Later, there’s an encounter with a film historian, Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg) and a poignant trip through the memories of Papa George, whose early forays into filmmaking unfurl on the screen with a wonder and delicate wizardry that I haven’t seen from Scorsese in decades.
The first hour of Hugo is enchanting and engrossing as a children’s fantasy adventure, immersed in the world of literary imagination. The spectre of Dickens and Hergé are all over the early going, and those interludes amongst the Parisian store patrons remind of post WW1 comic strips. Isabelle exudes a love for books and language, incorporating words like ‘clandestine’ into her everyday speech and sharing with Hugo the worlds of splendor hidden on pages. It’s refreshing in today’s culture of instant electronic information to watch two kids mount an investigation by pouring through old tomes next to dusty shelves. In the second half, Hugo transforms into a beguiling and gentle spectacle, a love letter to the birth of cinema itself and eventually a treatise for film preservation.
Scorsese commits a subtle transition, staged as an exchange of experience between the two orphaned children. Hugo repays Isabelle’s library excursions with a stolen trip to the cinema, where the young girl watches wide-eyed as Harold Lloyd hangs above dizzying heights in ‘Safety Last!’ In a canny move from Scorsese, the silent movie remains in 2 dimensions while the characters in the multi-dimensional realm of the theater sit transfixed by these simple moving pictures. We see their power, divorced from the technology that drips off every other frame of the film. The 3D does feature in some silent film clips towards the end, building sensory depth into Méliès’ classic Voyage to the Moon, and I was impressed with how exciting the images look in that format.
I keep talking about the 3D here. I’m typically not a fan of the technology, and have only been impressed by a few examples of it employed correctly. Scorsese latches onto it and uses it as a tool instead of a gimmick. He’s building on what Cameron started in Avatar, incorporating it into the film in a way that comments upon the narrative and doesn’t just add extra visual pageantry. There’s been much talk of the scene where the famous Lumiere Brothers short “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” (1897), is recreated in dimensions that evoke what that rumored screening must have been like, with frightened patrons running from the screen. It is an impressive moment, to be sure, but it suggests a single innovation when all of Hugo has been expertly structured to accommodate the space and potential of the third dimension. When Sacha Baron Cohen’s inspector leans in to intimidate Hugo, his face moves closer and closer until its encompassing the screen and then jutting out, inches from the audience. This is skillful because Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson frame the scene in a way that puts sensory emotion before aesthetic recognition, drawing attention away from the effect because of the humorous discomfort it causes.
A dream sequence that melds the worlds of silent filmmaking and waking reality, with a train speeding through a station and wreaking havoc, is another fascinating example of Scorsese’s grasp of the medium and the genre. Although it probably has less impact than Scorsese has intended—certainly less than the modern equivalent of the Lumiere’s achievement—this sequence combines thrills with bright, gleaming escapism. That escapism occurs both in front of and behind the camera, as everyone involved is seamlessly absorbed into John Logan’s intelligent adaptation of Selznick’s graphic novel contraptions. For Scorsese’s part, he’s having a great time and wallowing in the handsome and visually expressive world that production designer Dante Ferrati and costume designer Sandy Powell have helped realize.
The train station and the mechanical clockwork that sits inside of it is one of the great spaces to appear in the movies. There’s an exaggerated, impressionistic aura about the clocks that reminds of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Gears, levers, and great grinding cogs swing and rock in and out of the frame, evaporating from sight in geysers of hot steam. The genteel pastorale of the indoor markets, complete with gleeful warm-hearted eccentrics like Frances De La Tour’s Madame Emily and Richard Griffith’s Monsieur Frick, evokes the airy dream spaces of Chaplin. Outside the station, the world is a gloomy but gorgeous painting of gothic splendor, looking like the best illustrated version of A Christmas Carol you have ever seen. Howard Shore’s classical score aids the imagery in achieving the aching but understated emotion that Scorsese aims for.
Hugo is the sum of all it’s wonderful parts thanks to Martin Scorsese, who has seemingly stolen back his soul through a project that initially looked like selling out. He’s shed the mobsters and the mean streets, but not the same personal heart and artist’s confidence that he brought to those films. From Raging Bull to Age of Innocence, Scorsese has always followed dreamers seeking to rise above disadvantage while achieving a measure of self posession. Hugo, although not quite an innocent, seeks to find his own place in the cosmic clockwork while not losing those precious memories that have formed him thus far. The older Méliès, played with restraint and award-worthy internal sadness by Ben Kingsley, has gone from magician to movie maker to forgotten ghost and finds those memories too painful and frail to hold on to.
Somewhere in the midst of this masterful, exciting film—that’s thrilling enough for children and thoughtful enough for their parents—Scorsese reconciles the three competing facets of his person; that young boy who fell in love with cinema like Michael Powell’s Tales of Hoffman, the scholar who brought fallen artists like Powell back to their audience with lost films, and the old, frustrated filmmaker who carries on with the phantoms of greatness looming over his shoulder. With Hugo, he’s proven something else; the greatness is still there and lingering on the horizon in front of him.