Tuesday, 6 December 2011
'Hugo' is a rare sort of film that warrants all the trite pull-quotes you read on so many posters. It's a triumph. It's spellbinding. You could even sincerely call it magical. A kids' movie that is full of sincere, cynicism-free wonder about the world and, most interestingly, the value of cinema. Here cinema takes a reverent position with one of its pioneers even afforded a central role in the plot.
As a colourful family film - and a first foray into 3D - it could be considered a departure for director Martin Scorsese, yet conversely this is perhaps the most personal film he has ever made - more closely related to documentaries like 'A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies' than the hard-edged likes of 'Taxi Driver' or 'Goodfellas'.
Hugo, as played by the wide-eyed Asa Butterfield, is the director's surrogate here. He may be a young orphan living within the workings of a vast Parisian clock in the 1930s, but he sees cinema the way Scorsese does and it's through him that we bear witness to its power. To him films stir up powerful memories, recalling trips to the cinema with his late father (Jude Law) who describes cinema as a place you can see dreams in the day.
Other memories Hugo views as though part of his life's own movie, with Scorsese staging a moment of teary recollection as if his young hero were seated in a cinema, with the blue light of a projector filtering overhead. To Hugo films are not merely dreams and memories but also feats of magic. The cinema itself provides a place of comfort and a distraction from his sense of loss and loneliness. The script may call for Hugo to take the final bow, but make no mistake the cinema itself is the hero of this adventure.
After his watchmaker father is killed in a freak accident, Hugo is adopted by an alcoholic uncle (Ray Winstone) and put to work maintaining the clocks of a Paris train station, secretly living within the walls of the building. This isn't a bad fit as the boy has a gift for fixing things, taking comfort in the way machines work - though he's primarily focussed on restoring an old anthropomorphic automaton which was discovered abandoned in a museum by his father.
Years later his uncle is gone and he's an outsider, living vicariously through the station's disparate oddball inhabitants as he eagerly watches them through a network of peepholes - perhaps touching on cinema's appeal to voyeurism. The players here include Richard Griffiths, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee and Sacha Baron Cohen, as an overzealous station inspector determined to send him to the local orphanage, and each has their own satisfying and sweet narrative arc.
Hugo's only tangible link to the past, fixing the automaton is an obsession which leads him to steal odd parts (springs, cogs, motors) from an old toy seller on the platform (Ben Kingsley). After falling foul of this bad tempered and sorrowful old man the boy befriends his adopted daughter, Isabelle played by the again outstanding Chloë Grace Moretz, and the two of them set about unravelling the mystery of the robot. This quest proves to be something of a red herring, solved within the first half as the film heads in a very different direction, with the children becoming increasingly fascinated by cinema - for the literary-inclined Isabelle a forbidden pleasure.
They visit a library and read from early books on celluloid history, telling the film's young audience all about the earliest days of the medium. They chat with early film historian René Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg) and learn about how silent movies were made. And Scorsese duly backs these lessons up with no small amount of footage from the films themselves, introducing his prospective young audience to the Lumière brothers' 'Sortie des Usines Lumière à Lyon' and oft-referenced 'L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat', before showing clips of Chaplin, Keaton and many, many others.
This second half of the film is about the medium of cinema far more than the adventures of Hugo and Isabelle, yet it's hard to find fault with that when the result is this passionate and affirmative. The cinema history lesson here is not relegated to subtext: it is the principle text. This is equally true of the subject of film preservation (Scorsese's other great passion) which goes some way toward becoming the ultimate moral of the story.
But this is also the story of 3D - which Scorsese uses majestically throughout, transporting us into the miniature world of the children as adults loom large and oppressive in an impossibly vast world. By the end he's shown us genuine colour, 3D footage of World War I and even a new stereoscopic version of Georges Méliès' seminal 1902 spectacle 'Le Voyage dans la lune' - which, incidentally, looks magnificent.
By drawing the parallel between cinema, dreams, magic tricks and machines, he makes a powerful case for gimmick as a fundamental and exciting part of cinema from the time of its inception onwards. It's the most persuasive pro-3D argument to date and - even if Scorsese never makes another movie in the format - it's clear that this technology excites and fascinates him as much as the medium itself.
'Hugo' is not the most exciting, consistent or perfectly structured children's film you'll ever see. In fact it often seems like a slick piece of educational programming rather than a fun family movie - with the slapstick chases around the station the least effective sequences. It's almost as if Scorsese has engineered a self-indulgent piece of fan fiction as a clandestine way to educate children about the art form he loves and give some of his favourite film clips a fresh airing for a new audience. But as a fellow lover of cinema I find this entirely admirable. It's heartening to see such an unabashed celebration of art.
'Hugo' is rated 'U' by the BBFC and is playing in the UK now.