Review: Hugo (2011)

Hugo is both a better film than the awful trailers (which, if you haven’t seen yet, should definitely avoid) would suggest and not one that most casual filmgoers would expect from director Martin Scorsese. This adaptation of Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a magical film, in the imaginative sense of the word. It explores the power of imagination and the quest for purpose in life. It explores the magic of filmmaking deftly, both in its form (Scorsese experiments here with 3D and computer generated effects) and content (which I will get into more in a moment). I haven’t yet seen a film this holiday season that I would wish I could share with my infant son as much as this one.

Hugo tells the story of the titular character (Asa Butterfield), a recent orphan who lives in the walls and caverns of Paris’s central train station. After his father (Jude Law) dies in a museum fire, Hugo Cabret is then abandoned by his wayward uncle Claude (Ray Winstone) and takes up Claude’s job keeping the clocks in the station running, all while attempting to evade the menacing yet comical Inspector Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen). But Hugo’s real passion is fixing broken things, and of all the broken things in his life, the mysterious automaton that his father left him consumes his attention most. One day, Hugo is caught stealing machine parts from the toy shop owner, Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), who takes him for a thief, forces Hugo to empty his pockets and finds Hugo’s father’s notebook, including detailed drawings of the automaton. The discovery makes Papa Georges furious. What is the mysterious connection between Papa Georges and the automaton? What makes him so upset? What is the purpose of Hugo’s automaton?

This is the kind of film in which the chief pleasure is watching the unfolding of the various mysteries. The adventure that Hugo goes on is one of discovery rather than centring around action or violence. Along with Papa Georges’s goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), Hugo goes on a search that involves libraries, bookshops, movie theatres, and the passages in and around the Paris train station The snowy environs of 1930s Paris excite and thrill, bringing to magical life a sense of space and movement, a truly cinematic achievement. The film utilizes some of the most effective 3D work in any film I’ve seen. While, as a glasses wearer, I find 3D often a nuisance not worth the price, in Scorsese’s hands the film gains a depth and immersive feel from the stereoscopic effects such as the clock-tower’s staggering height (an homage to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, no doubt) and the ashes of Hugo’s notebook blowing from Papa Georges’s handkerchief. It’s worth remembering that even master’s such as Hitchcock experimented with 3D (Dial M for Murder was originally presented this way), and when the underlying mysteries of the film come to light, the use of 3D takes on a thematic nuance that adds even more to the film experience.

Hugo (Asa Butterfield) and Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley)

[The following paragraphs involve some minor spoilers.]

The ultimate magic that Hugo is about is the magic of movies. It’s a clichéd statement to say that a filmmaker such as Scorsese has crafted his “love letter to the movies,” but it is. In one sequence, Hugo takes Isabelle to the movie theatre to see Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! after which she expresses gratitude to Hugo, saying “Thank you for the movie, it was a gift.” The story of Hugo takes movie goers on a journey back into the very history of cinema. As Hugo and the viewers discover, Papa Georges is none other than the silent film director, Georges Méliès, who really did fall upon hard times and become a toy shop owner at the Montparnasse train station. It’s thrilling to think of cinema goers today seeing sequences from Méliès films and other landmarks such as L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat back on the big screen. One can only hope that audiences gain a new appreciation for the magic and history of the cinematic medium, though it seems odd to see Hugo lumped in amongst the hollow and crass material aimed at children in theatres today. Hugo may have a hard time breaking through to this generation. I have read accusations that the film is more for middle-aged film critics than it is for “real” children, but that is more a sad commentary on the entertainment aimed today’s children than a criticism of this film.

Hugo is filled with memorable characters with their own desires and personalities, such as Baron Cohen’s Inspector Gustav, who hopes to get to know the flower girl (Emily Mortimer) he has fallen with, or the stately bookshop keeper (Sir Christopher Lee), who sees in Hugo the same love for stories that inspires him. Ben Kingsley gives one of the best performances he has given in years, imbuing Papa Georges with regret and lovingly portraying his redemption. Like Papa Georges rediscovering his purpose as a storyteller and filmmaker, Hugo discovers his purpose in life as the fixer of people, all of whom, even ostensible antagonists like Inspector Gustav, have value and are capable of love. The film’s camera allows us to see the world of the train station and take in these various micro-storylines as they unfold before Hugo’s eyes, paralleling the act of film watching itself.

Earlier I mentioned that this film is not what many people would expect from Scorsese, who is best known for his gangster films, such as Goodfellas or The Departed,  or intense character studies, such as Raging Bull or The Aviator. Yet, this film fits very well in his oeuvre when you understand Martin Scorsese is a dedicated film preservationist, both a filmmaker and a scholar of cinema like René Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg) in the film or myself. If one is inclined toward auteurist readings, it fits best with films like Taxi Driver or The Last Temptation of Christ, in which characters quest to find their place in the world, though it expresses an optimism and hope beyond those films. Hugo affirms the idea that people have purpose and worth in life, and expresses these sentiments cinematically. By reminding us of the origins of narrative filmmaking through embracing the newest tools of the medium, Martin Scorsese presents a film full of reverence and self-referentiality. Hugo is among the very best cinematic gifts that this year has yet to give us.

Hugo (2011)

Directed by Martin Scorsese; written by John Logan, based on the novel by Brian Selznick; Starring Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moritz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Christopher Lee, Michael Stuhlbarg, Helen McCrory, Ray Winstone, and Jude Law.

10 out of 10

About Anders

Anders makes no distinction between high- and low-art, surreal or classical. He enjoys the transcendent cinema of Tarkovsky and Malick, yet holds a special place in his heart for the pop-cinema of Lucas and Spielberg. He enjoys American indie films and contemporary world cinema, as well as visiting and studying the canonical classics. He is currently studying for his PhD in English and Film Studies, with interests in critical theory, art cinema, and Asian cinema. His favourite films include: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), North By Northwest (1959), Days of Heaven (1978), Pulp Fiction (1994), Seven Samurai (1954), and The Third Man (1949). His favourite directors include: Hitchcock, Kurasawa, Nolan, Lynch, Malick, Wong Kar-wai, and Scorsese.