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A passionate brief for film preservation wrapped in a fanciful tale of childhood intrigue and adventure, Hugo dazzlingly conjoins the earliest days of cinema with the very latest big-screen technology. At once Martin Scorsese‘s least characteristic film and his most deeply felt, this opulent adaptation of Brian Selznick‘s extensively illustrated novel is ostensibly a children’s and family film, albeit one that will play best to sophisticated kids and culturally inclined adults. Paramount has no choice but to go for broke by selling this most ingenious of 3D movies to the widest possible public, hoping that critical acclaim and novelty value will pique the curiosity of all audiences. All the same, it remains something of a tricky proposition commercially.
Like so many of the most popular and enduring fictions centered on children, from Dickens to Harry Potter, this one is about orphans and castoffs, kids who must scheme, fight and resist authority to make their way in life. With exceptional imagination, first Selznick and now Scorsese and scenarist John Logan have found a way to connect their resourceful leading characters with one of the great early figures of cinema, Georges Melies, most famous as the originator of the science fiction film with his 1902 A Trip to the Moon and, perhaps more significantly, the first man to recognize the connection between the cinema and dreams.
In an incidental moment that alone justifies the entire recent resurgence of 3D, Scorsese recreates the legendary presentation of the Lumiere brothers’ 1897 Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, at which audiences flinched in horror as a train filmed coming into a station appeared to be headed right at them, in a way that astonishingly captures the reaction the brief clip was described as having created. For anyone remotely interested in film history, Hugo must be seen in 3D if only for this interlude, which the director and cinematographer Robert Richardson have pulled off through an impeccably precise combination of framing and timing.
The richness of detail and evident care that has been extended to all aspects of the production are of a sort possible only when a top director has a free hand to do everything he or she feels is necessary to entirely fulfill a project’s ambitions. As has been seen all too many times, this sort of carte blanche has its pitfalls in indulgence, extravagance and waste. In this case, however, the obvious expenditures of time, care and money would seem to have been devoted to matters directly connected to Scorsese’s overriding obsessions with film — the particulars of its creation, manner of presentation, the nature of the people who make it, its importance to the inner lives of those who love it and preservation both of film itself and the reputations of its practitioners.
By contrast, the film’s faults have more to do with less exalted issues such as slight overlength, a certain repetitiveness and the evident fact that Scorsese is not a great director of physical comedy.
The eponymous orphan here is Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), a prepubescent youngster who, after the death of his beloved father (Jude Law in flashback), is grudgingly taken under wing by a dissolute uncle (Ray Winstone) who tends to the complicated system of clocks at one of Paris’ major train stations, circa 1931 (as specified in Selznick’s book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, although not in the film). The labyrinth of gears, cranks, shafts and stairs that comprise this hidden chamber is explored in an extraordinary shot that winds up through it, and when the old man expires, Hugo, with nowhere else to go, surreptitiously takes charge of the clocks, unbeknownst to the vigilant station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen).
When the coast is clear, Hugo slips out of a wall grating to snatch something to eat and runs afoul of a sour old man (Ben Kingsley) who tends a toy shop in the station. He also meets another station dweller, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), who’s been raised by the old man, her godfather, and his wife. A precocious lass who, in a nice invention of Logan’s, likes to use big words, Isabelle is a bookworm with bright eyes and a wonderful smile who has no complaints except that her protectors won’t permit her to see movies. Hugo remedies this by taking her to a showing of Safety Last, famous for the image of Harold Lloyd dangling over the streets of Los Angeles from a clock. Thus is born a new cinephile.
Having found his first friend, Hugo dares to bring Isabelle to his private lair, albeit with an ulterior motive; a heart-shaped key she wears around her neck looks like just what he needs to activate his primary inheritance from his father, an elaborate, unfinished automaton he’s been tinkering with that he suspects might provide him with vital information.
The upshot is that Isabelle’s guardian is none other than Melies, the film pioneer thought to have died during World War I. Embittered and forgotten, Melies destroyed his own work, melting the celluloid down to be used as heels for women’s shoes, and the children, in league with an early film historian (Michael Stuhlbarg) set about engineering the resurrection of the old gent’s reputation, while also restoring his sense of purpose in life.
This impulse to recognize and rehabilitate a filmmaker and his work lies at the core of Hugo and has perhaps never before been so lovingly and extensively expressed in a narrative feature. As the film pushes into its second hour, Scorsese and his team imaginatively and exactingly recreate the shooting of scenes from several notable Melies films, replicating the extraordinary sets, costumes and “special effects” they employed, and which often featured the director’s wife Jeanne (Helen McCrory). A particular point is made of how Melies’ films were hand-colored, frame by frame, the results of which are vividly rendered through the fortuitous recent Lobster Films color restoration of A Trip to the Moon. In related contexts, many other silent films — some famous, others not so much — are sampled in an enormously expressive but admirably disciplined manner.
Compared to Scorsese’s fundamental achievement in so eloquently articulating his abiding passion in a fictional context, the melodrama surrounding Hugo’s precarious existence in the station and his persistent, if easily distracted, pursuit by the station inspector feels overextended and indulged. The kid-in-peril interludes feel both obligatory, as something to potentially engage younger audiences, and padded to give more screen time to Cohen, who delivers an arch performance that is faintly amusing and slightly off-key. The director works overtime to give the station scenes cinematic life, letting the camera loose to prowl amid hordes of extras and dense scenic detail, but overkill eventually sets in after one or two too many chases. An under-two-hour running time should have been a goal.
One aspect that takes a bit getting used to is the across-the-board use of British accents by the, admittedly, mostly English cast for characters who are all French. It was a perfectly pragmatic decision, in the end, as having the actors employ French accents would likely have proved annoying and universal American accents would have been no more logical than British ones; it’s probably just the vast difference in speech and temperament on opposite sides of the Channel that somewhat jars.
Although he ultimately comes through with a winning performance, Butterfield, previously seen in Son of Rambow and The Wolfman, seems a bit stiff and uncertain in the early-going; there are scenes in which he seems over-manipulated, right down to the slightest gestures and the direction of his glances. By contrast, Moretz (Kick-Ass, Let Me In), with her beaming warmth and great smile, is captivating as a girl who leaps at the chance for some adventure outside of books. Refusing to sentimentalize, Kingsley catches both the deeply submerged hurt and eventual pride of an artist long but not forever erased from history, while McCrory invigorates as his younger wife, who first protects but then crucially helps liberate his secret.
The film’s craft and technical achievements are of the highest order, combining to create an immaculate present to film lovers everywhere. It would be hard to say enough on behalf of Richardson’s cinematography, Dante Ferretti’s production design, Sandy Powell’s costumes, Rob Legato‘s extensive visual effects, Thelma Schoonmaker‘s editing, Howard Shore‘s almost constant score and the army of technical experts who made all of Scorsese’s perfectionist wishes come true.
One amusing detail is that the view from Hugo’s clock tower seems to vary in height from scene to scene, as judged in relation to the Eiffel Tower across the city; at times it’s level with the second deck of the landmark, at others is even with the very top and at least once provides a perspective actually looking down upon it. A work of great imagination indeed.
Opens: Nov. 23 (Paramount)
Production: GK Films, Infinitum Nihil
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Helen McCrory, Michael Stuhlbarg, Frances de la Tour, Richard Griffiths, Jude Law
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenwriter: John Logan, based on the novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick
Producers: Graham King, Tim Headington, Martin Scorsese, Johnny Depp
Executive producers: Emma Tillinger Koskoff, David Crockett, Georgia Kacandes, Christi Dembrowski, Barbara De Fina
Director of photography: Robert Richardson
Production designer: Dante Ferretti
Costume designer: Sandy Powell
Visual effects supervisor: Rob Legato
Editor: Thelma Schoonmaker
Music: Howard Shore
PG rating, 130 minutes
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Santa Barbara International Film Festival