Hugo (Martin Scorsese, 2011)

06Dec11

Ben Kingsley (Georges Méliès), Sacha Baron Cohen (Station Inspector), Asa Butterfield (Hugo Cabret), Chloë Grace Moretz (Isabelle), Ray Winstone (Uncle Claude), Emily Mortimer (Lisette), Jude Law (Hugo’s Father). Screenplay by John Logan. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Rating: U. Running time: 127 minutes.

It’s impossible to avoid this, so let’s get it done first and foremost and quickly: just what has happened here? As The Times put it, the Dostoevsky of the streets of America is now venturing into the world of magical family adventures. The maker of Raging Bull and the leader of modern neo-noir, violence-galore realist cinema is filming a child-friendly colour-extravaganza. Less than a month on, incidentally, from his latest music documentary – this time on George Harrison. Is there any end to the late-life evolution of Martin Scorsese?

Apparently not if Hugo is anything to go by, and not for a minute should anyone think the change of focus means a change in quality. Hugo is easily as wonderful as a piece of art as any of Scorsese’s earlier efforts, and it is, of course, his most joyful film by quite a way.

That’s barely a surprise. What’s shocking is only that he can even do heartwarming cinema, and do it this well! Taxi Driver and GoodFellas might indeed be savored for centuries – not least by me – but my God what a cost they may have come at. Namely, our being deprived of the maestro of the mob movie spending a lifetime rivalling Disney and Pixar for sweet childhood sentimentalism. If by the end of the film you haven’t let a tear slip down your face, or at least allowed the widest of smiles to take over you, then I insist on a visit to the hospital: your heart may have stopped functioning a while back.

Leaving aside the decadently rich visuals – which would be Black Forest gateau in the world of cake – what’s just so marvellous about Hugo is how the childhood adventure gets wrapped up with cinema history in a way that makes the film turn into a glorious, Narnia-esque lecture. The subject of intrigue starts off as a broken automaton that an orphan living in the walls of a Parisian train station is desperate to fix, believing it will reveal a message from his late father. Before long, however, this evolves into an uncovering of the secret life of the owner of a toyshop in the station. Played by Ben Kingsley, this old man turns out to be none other than Georges Méliès, an early artistic innovator who has only retrospectively been recognised for his contributions to cinema. This allows for some small but fascinating insights into the history of film – from seeing how early prints were coloured to learning how the first ever screening involved a train arriving at a station, the sight of which made the audience duck for cover as they expected to be ran over. This is all a personal interest of Scorsese’s, of course, as a chief player in the world of film preservation. Here he gets to share some of that passion with us, and in doing so he gets us on board with overwhelming ease. His love when expressed this way is irresistibly contagious.

I’ve read several doubts about the ability of children to enjoy the film’s focus here, but I imagine it’s sufficiently interspersed with scenes involving Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest clumsy persona to keep even young eyes hooked. Cohen’s character is a mean, all-suspecting station inspector, constantly on the lookout to catch Hugo up to no good. It’s a clear homage to the silent, Keaton-esque personalities that dominated cinema in the early 1900s, and it works a treat as punctuation for the main narrative thread.

This is also the best (and probably the only good) use of 3D since Avatar. We’re treated to several of those trademark swooping tracking shots, not least in the opening scene in which we go from the Parisian skyline, swerving down a railway line past feet and suitcases before shooting back up to Hugo peering through a crack in the station’s walls. The impression of depth is no doubt useful here, and I wanted to respect the choice of using the new technology. The jury is still out, however, on whether it’s worth the cost of nose-ache from carrying the weight of two pairs of spectacles, and the loss of brightness in those vibrant visuals that naturally accompanies the darkening glasses. If I see it again I will happily opt for 2D, and that second viewing can’t come soon enough. Hugo plays out like a dream. It’s a bundle packed tightly with history, comedy, a dash of magic and a dollop of warmth, and as the generations are united on screen, they’ll be united in the cinema too.

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