3 Dec

When Hugo was first announced you could hear the collective gasp of cinéastes reverberate across the world; Martin Scorsese making a kids movie? Surely not? It’s easy to see why Scorsese was attracted to the project – anyone who knows anything about Scorsese’s childhood isolation due to debilitating asthma will be able to draw parallels between him and Hugo, the titular protagonist and the film’s subject is something very dear to Scorsese’s heart.

Hugo focuses on the titular Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), a recently orphaned boy who lives in the bowels of a Parisian train station, who is in constant danger of being caught and bungled off to the orphanage by the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). He toils away trying to fix an automation left to him by his father but he is caught stealing parts from the toy shop from the store’s owner who turns out to be none other than cinema’s grand master – Georges Méliès.

Sir Ben Kingsley gives a particularly affecting performance as the world-weary Méliès, a cinematic genius who is but a shadow of his former self. He finds it painful to talk about the past but not because of any bitterness towards it but rather because he longs to return to his days of happiness. When he meets Hugo, he treats him with a Scrooge-like harshness but slowly develops a fondness as he recognises the parallels with himself.

An orphan but a talented orphan, Hugo is something of a cross between Oliver Twist and Quasimodo as he diligently maintains the clocks at the train station, a job inherited from his deceased uncle, wary that the slightest slip-up will cause the Station Inspector to investigate. Lonely, he desperately searches for meaning in life by fixing an automaton that he believes holds a message from his father. Asa Butterfield portrays Hugo with exceptional handling. His delivery is most impressive in the more moving scenes where he conveys raw emotion that’s rare to find nowadays, especially from actors of his age.

However, the true focus of the film is not on Hugo or even Méliès but cinema itself – its origins, its magical properties and its power. Perhaps the key scene in the film is when Hugo takes Isabelle (Chloë Moretz) to see her first movie, Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! Isabelle’s facial expression goes through a series of transmutations but all of them undoubtedly express happiness, joy and wonder.

Scorsese takes pains to make sure that audiences experience the same wonder from watching Hugo as Isabelle did from watching Safety Last! and he even recreates the latter’s memorable clock-hanging scene whilst utilising the not-so-modern technology of 3D. This is the first live-action movie where I can conclusively say that the 3D was not a gimmick but an essential part of the film’s visual aesthetic. From the breathtaking opening shot that brushes across an aerial view of Paris and slowly focuses in on Hugo’s eyes peering through the face of a clock to the cold, biting atmosphere of the snowy path that leads to la maison du Méliès, an artistic beauty illustrates Hugo that Georges Méliès himself would surely be proud of.

Lovingly crafted from the rare substance that cinema was soaked in long ago when film was and indeed felt new, Hugo is a wondrous movie experience that will surely stand the test of time for generations to come. A line that Isabelle speaks to Hugo sums up my feelings perfectly: “Thank you for the movie today – it was a gift.”


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