In a poignant moment of realization during Hugo, our young protagonist (Asa Butterfield) tells his bookish friend Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), “Everything has a purpose — even machines. Maybe that’s why broken machines make me so sad: They can’t do what they’re meant to do. Maybe it’s the same with people.” As with so many of Hugo‘s sweet little scenes, this cuts to the heart of the film, one that is steeped in meaning, layered in the parallels between the dreams and reality of men, the form and function of filmmaking and all the physical and imaginative nuts and bolts that connect them.
That’s why, after my second viewing of Hugo, I realized how fortunate I was to attend the movie’s New York Film Festival “Work in Progress” screening. Director Martin Scorsese’s decision to reveal his unfinished movie rings even more metaphorical when you explore the themes of Hugo; he allowed an audience to see the gears of his movie.
If all of this sounds a little deep for a film marketed toward kids, it is. The pace of Hugo (the first half, specifically) might lose the interest of young viewers, but that doesn’t mean it’s an unwarranted watch. While the film will resonate strongest with lovers of film history, and hopefully inspire a new generation of cinephiles, there are truly magical elements that will charm any viewer (stunning visuals, detailed, whimsical sets, heart-wrenching performances, and the best live-action 3D you’ve seen to date, to name a few). The overwhelming takeaway is that Scorsese made Hugo with only one audience in mind, himself. Every frame of celluloid boasts love of and reverence for his field. To watch Hugo is to see a master filmmaker in his element.
Based on Brian Selznick’s bestselling novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the big-screen adaptation could not have fallen into more capable hands. The pairing of Selznick’s material and Scorsese’s genius is serendipitous, to say the least. We’re introduced to young orphan Hugo, who lives within the walls of a Paris train station during the 1930s. The only relic of his life with his deceased father (Jude Law) is a partially functioning automaton. Hugo busies himself winding the various clocks of the station by day, stealing bits of food and parts for his robot; he’s convinced that, once restored, the automaton will send a message for his father. He’s constantly dodging the puritanical station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), an injured war veteran who pursues errant young thieves with his trusty Doberman Pinscher. When Hugo is eventually caught stealing by the station’s curmudgeonly toy vendor Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), the boy finds himself entwined in a mystery that leads him to Georges’ goddaughter Isabelle and film scholar Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg).
One of my first reactions during Hugo was to draw comparisons to Amelie and Cinema Paradiso. The film shares the former’s quirky, authentic feel of being embedded in Parisian life, and the latter’s heart, character development and thematic ties. Hugo‘s pace takes a good while to get chugging — the first half is devoted almost solely to Hugo and Isabelle’s adventures in uncovering the mystery of the automaton — but once the second half unfolds, it’s impossible not to grin nonstop. Kingsley gives a stunning performance, one wrought with emotion and nuance, as does Helen McCrory as his wife Jeanne. Relative newcomers Butterfield and Moretz hold their own formidably beside the rest of the cast, and Cohen serves dually as villain and comic relief in hilarious fashion, pushing the boundaries of propriety without ever going overboard. Emily Mortimer is also given a small but meaningful role as Cohen’s love interest Lisette, and she’s quite lovely. Also an enjoyable surprise: Christopher Lee as kindly librarian Monsieur Labisse. No matter how small the part, Scorsese curates his actors impeccably, and directs them to a performance that will stick with you long after the credits roll.
Hugo is precisely how 3D should be executed: with purpose and proficiency. We open on an overhead shot of Paris at night, its angled streets throbbing with lights like spokes in a wheel, the Eiffel Tower its hub. As the camera descends deeper into the town, eventually settling within the train station where much of the film takes place, we’re engrossed in the nuances of the space. Lovers sharing coffee at the cafe, vendors selling their various wares, a band playing traditional Parisian music while revelers dance, travelers hurriedly shuffling to their destinations. The technology is married with Scorsese’s technique to create an atmospheric immersion, not, as we see all too often with 3D, a gimmick. And, as the narrative progresses, we see that the use of 3D stems beyond even a tool to emotionally connect with the audience. We revisit the beginnings of film, when moving pictures were considered a fad, audiences packed into tents and ducked as trains silently chugged toward them on the screen. They’d never seen anything like it. Conversely, Scorsese gives us a few scenes with a train, barreling toward the screen in 3D.
Hugo is Scorsese as director, professor, misty-eyed reveler. It takes Selznick’s beloved novel, assembles a phenomenal cast and leaves you with a new appreciation for the movie-going experience. As you travel through an era of hand-cranked cameras, watch Hugo wind countless clocks of all sizes, and explore the heart of a mysterious automaton, you’ll realize that you, the audience member, are as integral to the narrative as any bolt, pendulum or strip of film to one of its various mechanized personages.
Hugo opens Wednesday nationwide.