Asa Butterfield mimics Harold Lloyd in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo
It’s a long time getting there, but Martin Scorsese eventually breathes stirring life into Hugo, the story of a little boy, an automaton and a sad old man. Each of them is broken, missing a part that keeps them from working as they should, but each of them is interconnected in ways they can’t fathom. Within that unexpected connection lies the key that will make them all whole again.
Orphaned when his father died in a fire, Hugo Cabret lives within the walls of the Montparnasse train station in Paris in the early 1930s. There he keeps all the station’s clocks wound and in working order in the absence of his missing uncle to whom Hugo had been sent to live. With no one to take care of him, Hugo sneaks food from nearby shops, all the while performing his duties and avoiding the nasty station inspector who takes a special joy in having street children hauled off to the orphanage.
The only thing Hugo has left connecting him to his father, a watchmaker and a tinkerer, is a broken automaton found abandoned in a museum attic which Hugo and his father had been working to put back together again. Poring through his father’s notebook filled with intricate notes and drawings of the machine-man, Hugo tries to bring it back to life himself, nicking gears and springs and spare parts from a toy seller who operates a booth at the station. Hugo’s routine is broken and the drama begins, however, when the toy seller catches him in the act and takes the notebook away as punishment, threatening to burn it. How will Hugo get the notebook back and why did the toy seller react to it with such revulsion? To answer these questions, Hugo teams up with the toy seller’s precocious god-daughter Isabelle and the adventure begins.
As in the Brian Selznick book from which Hugo is adapted, the early part of the story is honestly kind of a slog. Asa Butterfield is excellent as the haunted little boy, but the character isn’t ultimately all that interesting. Chloe Grace Moretz fares a little better as Isabelle because that character is more well-rounded and sympathetic. I’d rather see her story than Hugo’s. Perhaps I’m projecting, but there’s also a sense that Scorsese isn’t all that invested in this story of an orphaned boy either. Tellingly, the best scene between Hugo and Isabelle is when the two sneak into a movie theater to see a Harold Lloyd picture. Scorsese lingers on their faces as they light up in delight and wonder at the iconic clock scene from Safety Last. His enthusiasm for that flickering magic captured in the dark is infectious and it’s the first time you can really feel Hugo’s beating heart.
To punch up the less interesting early going, Scorsese and his screenwriter John Logan expand the role of the station inspector and give him over to comic actor Sacha Baron Cohen. There are several chase sequences between Cohen and Hugo which should keep the kiddies occupied while giving the nearly 70-year-old director a chance to play around in his new 3D sandbox. Instead of using 3D to have things fly off the screen, Scorsese plunges into the depths of a scene by weaving the camera between and circling around characters and objects. It’s nifty, but I’m still not convinced 3D is a new film language that can be used to enrich drama. Frankly, I’d like to see the film again in less murky 2D to better appreciate Dante Ferretti’s wonderful production design.
After showing glimmers of life during the Harold Lloyd scene, Hugo really begins to pop in the final 45 minutes as the mystery surrounding the toy seller played by the great Ben Kingsley starts to take shape. Kingsley is really the heart and soul of the picture and the transformation he goes through as his gruff old man exterior is slowly pulled away is wonderful. Helen McCrory is also wonderful as the toy seller’s wife, a woman with a few secrets of her own. Also great is Michael Stuhlbarg as a film scholar and preservationist. He’s almost a surrogate for the director and it is here that the story veers onto the subject of the pioneers of early cinema and of preserving and reviving the cinematic past. These are two subjects that Scorsese lives and breathes and they’re the final ingredient to making Hugo sing. His loving recreation of Georges Melies’ glass box stage and of the elaborate production behind the seminal sci-fi/fantasy classic Le Voyage dans la lune is thrilling. These sequences are all greatly expanded from Selznick’s book and it is here that Scorsese finally feels in his element. All of the story’s pieces that had slowly been put into place over the first 90 minutes quietly and beautifully come alive.
Though it’s slow going at first, Hugo finally builds to a powerful and moving conclusion. Perhaps Scorsese’s most heartfelt work, Hugo is his ode to the timeless magic of motion pictures, to their ability to capture our dreams and to rekindle them when they are lost. It’s an expression of his love affair with cinema and it’s also about the peace that comes from simply finding the place where you belong.
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