Hugo: Martin Scorsese’s love letter to the cinema, now on Netflix, still captivates as much
Hugo (7+, 127mins) Directed by Martin Scorsese **** ½
The creative genius behind Angry bull, Taxi driver and Goodfellas to lead a children’s fantasy? It sounded like a sure-fire recipe for tears before bed and fear-induced insomnia.
But Martin Scorsese’s 2011 foray into family territory was a sparkling installment of precision filmmaking that a decade later still has the capacity to enter both young and old.
Based on Brian Selznick’s 2007 combined novel, picture book, graphic novel and flip book Hugo Cabret’s invention, this Parisian tale from the 1930s is both a love letter to all that is cinematic and a celebration of its power to entertain and transport – offering a chance to see “dreams in the middle of the day”, such as says a character.
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It’s easy to see what pleased Scorsese about the story. As a film historian and strong advocate of preservation, the focus on the birth of cinema and the forgotten genius of George Melies provides him with ample opportunities to lovingly show and recreate foundational moments from those early decades of the art form.
Sometimes it almost borders on a lecture and languid lamentation (“the weather hasn’t been kind to the old movies” and “all I have left is ashes and celluloid strips falling apart. erase “look more like stagings than character statements), but Scorsese infuses the narrative with such inventiveness and enthusiasm that all worry is swept away by the gripping overall adventure.
In his heart, Hugo is a story of love and loss, as a young boy (Asa Butterfield) finds himself orphaned and devastated by the death of his watchmaker father (Jude Law). Picked up by his alcoholic uncle (Ray Winstone), Hugo finds solace in maintaining the clocks at the train station where they live and trying to restore the last discovery he and his father made together – an automaton. But that project is threatened when the owner of the station’s toy kiosk (Ben Kingsley) withholds his father’s sketchbook in payment for all the parts he claims Hugo stole.
Desperate to get him back, Hugo asks for the support of owner Isabelle’s goddaughter (Chloe Grace Moretz) in exchange for taking him on an adventure. He introduces her to the cinema and its automaton, which could hold the key to unraveling a family mystery.
Adults keep secrets, detect children – Hugo’s premise has a very Spielbergian quality about it. Even the frame is reminiscent of one of the most adult The terminal. But in truth, his combination of the dark and the whimsical is more Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie, City of lost children), with a hint of Terry Gilliam (King fisherman) surrealism and a touch of Tim Burton (Sweeney todd) Gothic sensibilities.
Awesome acting abounds, with Kingsley (Sexy beast) and Moretz (Shadow in the cloud) remarkable, and Scorsese making full use of that of Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) penchant for physical comedy.
There’s also room for some cute Christopher Lee cameos (The Lord of the Rings trilogy), Richard Griffiths (The boys of the story), Emily Mortimer (Shutter island) and Frances De La Tour (Alice in Wonderland).
However, this is truly Marty’s spectacle, and surprisingly his masterpiece has been to use “the third dimension”.
Made at the height of the last stereoscopic “renaissance”, rather than a gimmick, it used it for its immersive quality, with hovering cameras and slow zooms pulling the audience into the center of the action. The opening shot is a piece of Brian De Palma-inspired beauty (think Snake-eyes), another scene makes you feel like you (and Moretz) are being trampled on, while a third shows Baron Cohen’s face almost filling the frame and appearing to be staring at you offscreen.
A film that lived up to its potential at the time to be the two millennia’s answer to Chitty chitty bang bang and generation X Paradiso Cinema equivalent, Hugo is Scorsese’s great tribute to those who came before him. He made them proud.
Hugo is now streaming on Netflix.