Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: John Logan, Brian Selznick (book)
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Asa Butterfield, Sacha Baron Cohen
It might seem incongruous for an expensive 3D blockbuster to make clockwork technology and the primitive origins of filmmaking its principle subjects, or indeed for that most adult of directors, Martin Scorsese, to venture into children’s cinema for the first time in his long career. However, Hugo demonstrates that these incongruities are only apparent, as they form the basis of a wonderful character-driven story and the best live action family film in years.
It opens with the title character (Asa Butterfield) attempting to steal a clockwork mouse from Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), the ageing owner of a toy booth in a Parisian railway station, which is continually under the watchful eye of an uncompromising Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). Georges catches Hugo in the act and confiscates his most valued possession, an old notebook containing instructions for the repair of a broken automaton, which represents the only tangible connection he has to his dead father (Jude Law). Hugo leads a lonely existence, living in apartments built into the station walls and tasked with ensuring that the clocks run on time. The only thing keeping him going is his desire to repair the automaton and discover its secret message.
He is forced to work in the toy booth to earn back his notebook, and while doing so he meets Georges’s daughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). Together they embark on an adventure that uncovers the hidden past of the Méliès family, and takes them on a journey through cinematic history. Hugo is a celebration of cinema and Scorsese affirms his love for the medium in the same way that Giuseppe Tornatore did with Cinema Paradiso. Both explicitly through the film’s message and implicitly through its presentation, Scorsese emphasises the magic of cinema, regardless of how primitive or advanced the techniques that are employed. In an era when the use of 3D technology is frequently seen as a modern degradation, Scorsese makes the point that filmmaking hasn’t changed a bit.
The 3D effects are wonderful, ranging from the intricacies of facial expressions, clockwork mechanisms and the multiple 2D layers of the oldest film sets, to the spectacular vistas of 1930s Paris, which give the city height and scale like never before. It looks stunning, and, while the effects are deliberately conspicuous, they are never a distraction. Effects are there to tell a story, as we are told, and Scorsese ensures that they all have a purpose and enhance the story he has to tell.
However, Hugo is not only a film about film. It has a great story and a rich tapestry of characters, reminiscent of a Victorian novel. However minor they appear in the grand scheme of things, each character is rendered with a depth and humanity that takes them beyond their role in the plot. The community that inhabits the station is very much the heart of the film. Its interactions are genuine and understated but frequently poignant. Hugo exists in its hidden fringe but, towards the end, he goes from being a background observer to the focus of attention in a touching scene in which the characters he knows so well really see him for the first time. The acting is strong as might be expected from such a stellar cast; Ben Kingsley puts in the outstanding performance, but Sacha Baron Cohen’s is the most representative. His Station Inspector is both a villain and a clown, but always simultaneously a man. Having made his name playing a caricature, Cohen takes the opportunity to demonstrate the range of his talent.
Hugo is a film of intrigue and adventure, and one that is intensely aware of the debt it owes to cinema’s largely forgotten pioneers. In light of this, Scorsese refuses to allow it be anything less than exceptional. Like the enduring films from the past, Hugo deserves to be watched by generations who will smile knowingly at the archaism of the effects but will nevertheless fall in love with the cast of characters and the human story it presents.