Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring: Asa Butterfield as Hugo Cabret, Ben Kingsley as George Méliès, Chloe Grace Moretz as Isabelle, Sasha Baron Cohen as Station Inspector
The words “A Martin Scorsese Picture” elicit such joy in me that is unexplainable. He has never made a bad film. That’s saying something for someone who has been directing films for 44 years. He has given us timeless masterpieces in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The Last Waltz, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, and GoodFellas, not to mention his great films that have not yet found their full appreciation like After Hours, The Age of Innocence, Casino, Bringing Out the Dead, Gangs of New York, The Aviator, and The Departed. I name those films because Hugo falls into the latter category. I hope Hugo will become an accepted masterpiece because I think it may be one.
At first glance, Hugo is an odd choice for Scorsese to direct. First of all, it’s a family film so it is hardly the fare for the man who showed us the mean streets of New York City and has been a primary chronicler of mob life on the street. However, this film could not have been directed by anyone else. The film is ultimately about a great love for film of the past, and no one making films today (including Steven Spielberg or Peter Jackson) has such an intimate knowledge of older films as Scorsese. He is the founder of the Film Foundation, an organization that is dedicated to preserving the films of the past. To read or watch interviews with him is like taking a mini history of film. He is quick to say that one shot was inspired by a move in this film, or that blocking was inspired by a sequence in that film. To make a film that in its last 45 minutes (I think, I wasn’t watching the clock) is a love letter to silent film director George Méliès must have been somewhat of a dream come true for him.
The story is about Hugo Cabret, an orphan who lives in a train station in 1930’s Paris. His father (wonderfully played by Jude Law) was a clock-maker who died in a fire of a museum. He had rescued, sometime before, an automaton that could write. Unfortunately, the automaton was not in working order. He and Hugo set to work fixing him. When he died, Hugo was taken in by his only living relative, his uncle (played by Ray Winstone) who wound the clocks in the train station and taught Hugo the work. Claude, the uncle, goes missing and Hugo takes up the work but must stay hidden because Claude did not tell anyone he was there and Hugo does not want to be sent to the orphanage. Hugo is still trying to fix the automaton and steals parts from the toy booth in the station, run by an angry old man (played by Ben Kingsley). The man confiscates a notebook with sketches of the automaton made by Hugo’s father and is taken aback. The man agrees to let Hugo work at the shop to get the notebook back, at the convincing of his Godchild Isabella who becomes Hugo’s only friend.
The plot from there is more of interrelationships between the characters. Hugo shows Isabella the automaton and discovers that the key she wears around her neck, in the shape of a heart, is what will make his newly repaired automaton work. How does she have the missing piece of his puzzle? They get the thing to work and it draws a curious image of the man in the moon with a bullet in his eye signed by George Méliès. Hugo remembers it as a scene described to him by his father from the first film he ever saw. Isabella says that is the full name of her Papa George, the owner of the toy booth Hugo has been working in. This leads them to a library with a history of film books. They discover that Méliès was a silent film director that was highly respected. They then encounter a film historian who revers Méliès and has even met him, during a film shoot years ago when the historian was a boy. The trouble is that the historian insists that Méliès died in the war (WWI for those not paying attention to the timeframe). Isabella says it isn’t true, that he is alive and they arrange for a screening of a film at the Méliès household. They are met by Isabella’s Godmother who, after insisting they leave, relents to see the film. After all, she acted in it. At the conclusion of the film, George comes in and filled with sadness, recounts how he left filmmaking (the great passion and joy of his life) because his films were no longer in demand.
The fact that Méliès is still alive is quite the revelation to the historian and he tells Méliès how venerated he is within the film community. He gets Méliès into the Paris Film Academy as a faculty member and hunts down many films thought to be lost. The middle parts of the story are really a mystery that leads the children around the streets of Paris, so I will not divulge them here. Suffice it to say that the intervening moments are wonderful and deserve to be experienced on their own.
This film is a celebration of the movies led by an unlikely hero and an unlikely plot that leads to it. Ben Kingsley and Asa Butterfield turn in beautiful performances that I feel need to be recognized by the Academy.
I have left out countless points of interaction in the train station. I find it hard to describe these instances because they are so charming and beautifully rendered, most notably by Sasha Baron Cohen as the Station Inspector, and because they are sidelines to the actual plot. They do not detract in any way, but serve to broaden the humanity of everyone in the film and show that, in the Station Inspector’s case, one person can perceive someone as a monster to be feared and another can see that same person as lovable. The interactions of the regular populous of the train station is simply wonderful to behold.
I have also, as of yet, failed to mention the direction and cinematography and the editing. This was not shot or edited as a “normal” Scorsese picture. The film is more languid than he normally is, but the camera is just as restless. Scorsese seldom lets his camera rest, it is always moving, even if it is imperceptibly. This is true of nearly all his films. However, the editing (by master editor Thelma Schoonmaker) is more subdued and less pulse-pounding that normal. Much like she did for The Age of Innocence or King of Comedy (another Scorsese film that is not as appreciated as it should be), she takes time with the editing. Scorsese still uses his trademark of speeding up or slowing down the film to highlight key points of drama or to emphasize the protagonist’s viewpoint, but he really lets the story unfold before us in a more straightforward way than is his nature. This film is, perhaps, the most personal of Scorsese’s long career of personal films. It is not semi-autobiographical like Who’s That Knocking at my Door (his first feature) or Mean Streets, but it is obviously a labor of love and that love shows in every frame of this film.
The cinematography is something very separate. I saw Hugo in 3D. For the record, I hate 3D. I think it is a gimmick and will not last, just as it did not last long in the 50’s to combat television and it did not last long in the 70’s to draw people back into the theaters during the recession. There are only two films I have ever seen that used 3D to any great effect: Avatar and Hugo. Scorsese got the 3D right. He uses it not as a gimmick, but as a tool to make his astonishing story that much more immersive. I always say that if a film is good, it does not need anything else to help it along. Both Hugo and Avatar can absolutely stand on their own without 3D, but to see them with that additional step is rather remarkable. When Hugo walks through corridors of steam, it feels like the steam is lapping at you, and moving around you as you pass close on Hugo’s heels. Frequent Scorsese collaborator Robert Richardson uses the camera to take you with Hugo on this strange journey of discovery and uses the 3D to add visual dimension to the very detailed world that Scorsese and production designer Dante Ferretti (another frequent Scorsese collaborator) have created. Richardson is able to combat the dulling of the color palate that is common with 3D by hyper-colorizing his shots and lighting them in a way that makes them stand out and beg to be seen. This is an incredibly beautiful film to simply watch because it is shot so expertly.
A quick note. There are films that you should see before seeing Hugo. There is a site that has them streaming here. To see them is to see the dawn of cinema in all of its glory. There is a scene where the children are told (or say, I cannot remember which) that when the Lumière Brother’s film A Train Arrives at the Station played for the first time that the audience screamed in fear because they thought they would be run over. I have read that this is a film history urban legend. The audience knew what they were there for because Nickelodeons had been around for a few years at that point, and they knew that they would not be hit by the train. It is a fun story anyway…
Hugo may very well be the best film of the year. I have no real basis for comparison, however, because I have not seen many films from 2011. It has won Scorsese the best director of the year from the National Board of Review and topped their list of the best films of the year, as well as some critic’s lists and other organizations. I hope that Scorsese gets what he deserves for this wonderful film.