CINEMA: News Weekly
Birth of cinema seen through a child's eyes
, April 14, 2012
Hugo (rated PG), an award-winning 3D adventure drama film produced by Martin Scorsese. Reviewed by Symeon Thompson.
Spoiler alert: There’s no way to talk about Hugo without giving the game away. You’ve been warned.
Virtuosic, with a touch of vaudeville, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo serves up a superbly cinematic take on 1920s Paris and film history, and does so through the eyes of a child.
This is a master using 3D to add depth, not special-effects gimmicks, to a story of substance and nuance. Having said that, there is an element of nostalgia in the movie’s pining for the glories of a Golden Age, when cinema dominated culture, that some may find self-serving.
Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is an intense boy living in Paris’s Montparnasse railway station. Orphaned when his watchmaker/restorer father (played in flashbacks by Jude Law) is killed in a fire, and taken in by his drunken uncle Claude (Ray Winstone) as an apprentice, he spends his life scurrying through the innards of the station keeping the clocks to time, engaging in petty thievery to survive, and trying to restore an automaton that his father had retrieved from the museum where he worked.
Hugo’s life is a lonely one, without friends or family, and he sees himself in terms of the clockwork mechanisms that he deals with, day after day.
In trying to steal parts from a toy store to aid with the restoration work, Hugo is caught by its owner, Georges (Ben Kingsley) who takes from him a notebook containing all the details regarding the automaton. The owner threatens to destroy the notebook and so Hugo follows him home, where he meets the book-loving, adventurous, tomboyish Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), Georges’ goddaughter, with whom he becomes friends, and they try to solve the mystery of the automaton together.
Scorsese uses the 3D cinematography with great effect, drawing on the full panoply of filmic storytelling techniques to create rich, honest visuals, rather than simple computer-generated imagery (CGI) gimmicks. In so doing, he shows just how much he loves the cinema, not as a shallow mass medium, but as a means of bringing dreams to life in such a way that they can be experienced by all, regardless of education and upbringing.
Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), with automaton.
It is also notable that books play a starring role in this movie through Isabelle’s friendship with the formidable bookseller, Monsieur Labisse (Christ-opher Lee).
This is further enhanced by the way in which minor characters, like Sacha Baron Cohen’s station inspector, or Emily Mortimer’s florist Lisette, to name only a few, are fully realised human beings, rather than caricatures; and by the strategic placing of historical characters like the jazz guitarist Django Rheinhardt (Emil Lager), providing a sense of déjà vu of Woody Allen’s impeccable and idiosyncratic Midnight in Paris from last year.
The real aim of the film is made apparent when we discover that “Papa Georges” is actually Georges Méliès, the magician-turned-inventor responsible for the making of The Movies, not just technologically, but also as the most potent cultural form of the twentieth century. In this regard, Hugo functions as a short-form history of the early cinema, providing its audience with the stuff of Screen History 101, in such a way as to add depth without compromising the story.
The Méliès story provides a profoundly affecting take on what happens to great men when they are stripped of their magic. Méliès, Prospero-like, seeks to wipe his past from his present and has been rendered bitter and impotent, unable to deal with even the slightest hint of his former glory, as shown by the way that he forbids his god-daughter to go to the cinema.
He is a tragic character of the highest order, and so we thrill at his restoration by the efforts of the children with the help of the cinema scholar René Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg).
The movie has been challenged because of this. It has been claimed by some of the more cynical amongst the critical set that this is little more than an exercise in self-serving nostalgia and the narcissism common to a Hollywood elite enamoured of their own greatness and used to confusing fame with real worth.
If you think that the cinema is nothing more than shallow sophistry and glitzy tricks, then you’ll probably find this film odious; but if you see movies as magical, and art as mattering, then you’ll likely enjoy it.
Many great movies; such as Gene Kelly’s Singin’ In The Rain (1952), Fellini’s 8½ (1963), Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941), RKO 281 (1999 — about the making of Citizen Kane) and recently The Artist, have used the back stories of the cinema to explore deep questions about life, and in such a way that they can be enjoyed by everyone.
Hugo is a worthy contribution to that group, one that draws on the past, to create something for the present.