Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: John Logan (Screenplay), Brian Selznick (Book)
Cast: Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Chloë Grace Moretz
Running time: 126 minutes
Hugo opens with the image of a number of mechanical cogs and gears that grind together, clicking and ticking against the soft soundscape of a string motif. The cogs dissolve into a Parisian skyline at night that places the Arc De Triomphe in the centre of the frame and a fanning network of streets and avenues branching out from it. The city’s dazzling lights seem timeless and magical, and their beauty feels picturesque and melancholic. The camera moves, taking in the Eiffel Tower; the sky changes from black to grey, then settles on a blanket of white that feels deliberately impressionistic, as if lifted from a great masterpiece painting. The glowing lights are replaced by flakes of snow that wistfully settle on the already white rooftops, and the camera transports us to the front of a 1930s train station. The pace of the camera’s movement increases, propelling us into the train station, through the train station; there’s steam and luggage in our way but we move through them, floating on an invisible wire. People are arriving and departing; inspectors are inspecting. The steam momentarily obscures our entire field of vision, but when it clears we are moving towards a large clock-face, where, from behind the number ‘4’, a young boy peers out on everything we’ve just experienced. We’ve come full circle, from the mechanics of the opening shot, through a distinctive Parisian landscape, to here. And in 3D, it’s absolutely remarkable.
The opening shot of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo should be installed as a filmic textbook on how to use 3D in contemporary cinema. Throughout the scene – and indeed, the whole film – the 3D techniques employed enhance our experience of events without ever feeling contrived. Scorsese understands that 3D should be used to absorb, rather than to distract. On a personal level, I was distracted for a short while, simply because of how impressive the 3D was, but after my vision settled and my senses relaxed, I became engrossed in a multi-dimensional world that felt as tangible and as real as almost anything I’ve seen on film.
Placing the film’s 3D aesthetic to one side, the narrative of Hugo is equally as impressive as its visual style. Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is a young boy who lives within the walls and cavities of a bustling Paris train station. He has been left there by his alcoholic uncle; a watchmaker who takes custody of the boy when his widowed father dies in a fire. Hugo’s world is one of mechanical cogs and industrial steam, and his only company is that of a mysterious lifeless automaton that his father was desperately trying to repair before his untimely death. He steals food from the various vendors, and avoids the austere, yet calamitous figure of the station’s inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). When Hugo is caught stealing mechanical parts from the station’s toy shop, he finds himself caught up in a life-changing adventure with the shop-owner’s grand-daughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). Through the mysterious automaton and the revelation that the humble toy-shop owner is in fact the great Georges Méliès – a filmmaker whose works are indelibly linked to the origins of the first moving pictures – Hugo and Isabelle discover a celluloid world of magic and illusion that is both a testament to, and a celebration of, the early days of cinema.
Scorsese is quite clearly an enthusiast of early cinema, and the film’s later scenes, where Méliès’s work takes centre stage, will be of great interest to cinephiles and film lovers. There is an undoubted air of magic to these early works, where filmmakers were still defining the craft and experimenting with techniques and approaches, and these scenes are presented to us in such a way that we instinctively feel their importance. Yet at the heart of Hugo is an old-fashioned adventure story, with a strong protagonist, a unique cinematic location, and an intriguing central mystery. Hugo’s adventure is a personal one – much akin to the journeys of Huck Finn or Oliver Twist – yet it affects the lives of those around him profoundly. There are a number of parallels with literary works – both E. T. A. Hoffman’s The Sandman and Philip Pullman’s Clockwork are invoked with the central figure of the automaton – and the overall fell of the narrative is remarkably classical in its nature.
Despite its strong central narrative, Hugo is a film that is defined by its appearance. The mechanical surroundings of Hugo’s clockwork residence are echoed throughout the film, and fit perfectly with the mechanical nature of early cinema. Scorsese’s liberal use of steam, pipework, gears and machinery lends the film a distinctively early twentieth-century feel, and provides a unique setting for the events that unfold. Hugo is able to transcend his humble surroundings through the power of cinema; The Lumière Brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat and Harold Lloyd’s clock-dangling sequence in Safety Last! are two films that provide an escape for the young boy, yet it is Méliès’s work that really captures Hugo’s imagination. Scorsese takes great joy in recreating some of the sets of Méliès’s most famous films and successfully integrates these into the narrative of Hugo. The film’s look is a unique one, and its 3D techniques only enhance this.
With regards to the film’s performances, Asa Butterfield gives a great central turn as the orphaned Hugo, imbuing the character with a sense of child-like wonder and youthful enthusiasm. Ben Kingsley is great as the famous filmmaker who is intent on hiding and forgetting his cinematic past, and Chloë Grace Moretz is also impressive as his courageous grand-daughter. Sacha Baron Cohen’s role as the authoritarian inspector is one of the most difficult in the film, yet he manages to walk the line between threatening station-master and likeable fool remarkably well, lending the film a comedic edge that is both welcoming and necessary. There isn’t a bad performance here, yet with Scorsese involved, there rarely is.
Hugo is a film that will be remembered for a long time to come. Scorsese’s use of 3D is certainly a defining attribute of the film, and its employment enhances proceedings throughout. The visual style of the film, with its mechanical iconography and unique setting, lends itself to the medium of 3D, and also neatly coincides with the mechanics of early cinema. Yet the film’s power isn’t limited to its impressive aesthetics, and the narrative of Hugo is equally absorbing. Hugo Cabret’s journey is an extremely personal one; an adventure that blends intrigue and curiosity with heartache and sorrow. And while the cinematic legacy at the heart of the film may not be of interest to everyone, Scorsese’s decision to explore the early days of moving pictures through the character of an orphaned boy is a smart one that fuels our emotional investment in events.
With its striking visual style and its compelling narrative, Hugo deserves the wave of critical approval that has been directed towards it. It is a film that charms and captivates, and is a loving testament to the power of early cinema. Above all, it is a remarkable family film from a director that understands the subtleties and nuances of the genre; a filmmaker who may just have Steven Spielberg worried.