Hugois a family film, yes. It has some slapstick, a Dickensian villain (or, more properly, and no pun intended, a Hugoian villain), mysterious adventure, cute dogs, and has many scenes of wonder. But beyond that, for those who are armed with the knowledge, Hugo is a valentine to the early days of cinema, and specifically to Georges Melies, who made over 500 films but within a decade was largely forgotten.
Set in the 1920s in Montparnasse Station in Paris, the title character is an orphan who lives inside the station, or more specifically, in the walls and clocktowers. His father (Jude Law) was a horologist, but after dying in a fire Hugo is left to the care of his dissolute uncle (Ray Winstone), who is employed as the clock keeper in the station. Left alone, Hugo scratches out a living by stealing food, all the while working on an unfinished project he and his father were involved in–an automaton.
Hugo has to avoid the eye of the Station Inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen), who has a brace on one leg and uses a Doberman Pinscher to chase down orphans. Cohen’s character bears certain resemblances to Inspector Javert, of Les Miserables, who becomes consumed by capturing his quarry. Hugo also has a run-in with a toy store operator (Ben Kingsley), who catches him stealing and confiscates his father’s notebook. Kingsley recognizes something in the book, and reacts crossly whenever he sees Hugo.
Kingsley’s goddaughter, Chloe Grace Moretz, teams up with Hugo, eager to have adventures. Together the two discover the truth about her godfather he is the celebrated filmmaker, Georges Melies, but he has no interest in reliving his past.
Films about filmmaking are common, even when they’re ostensibly about something else. And film critics tend to like these films. Whether the general public will embrace Hugo, I have no idea, but I think it has plenty to offer. For one thing, the production design, by Dante Ferrati, is breathtaking, as he creates the inner walls of the station as some sort of mechanical wonderland. Secondly, the universal appeal of a story of a plucky orphan boy, which goes back centuries, is rendered with aplomb by Scorsese and his screenwriter, John Logan. It is interesting to think that this a film that might have appealed to Steven Spielberg, and one wonders how it slipped by him. But Spielberg, one imagines, would have gone too far, and ladled the sentiment on in layers, while Scorsese and Logan stick with the story, and let the audience make their own conclusions. I do think it’s the only Scorsese film that’s ever brought a tear to my eye.
For those who know a thing or two about silent films, or Paris in the ’20s, Hugo is a goldmine. There are not only references to Melies’ films, most especially A Trip to the Moon, but also the Lumiere Brothers Arrival of a Train at a Station, Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last, and the automaton, who figures so prominently in the story, has a resemblance to the creature in Metropolis that can’t be coincidental.
In addition to plaudits for Scorsese, Logan, and Ferreti, I must congratulate Robert Richardson for his photography, Sandy Powell for her costumes, and the entire cast for their performances. It is a mark of Scorsese’s humanism that he gives his villain, Cohen, humanity, and Kingsley is absolutely wonderful as Melies. Moretz, who is already something of a wunderkind in film, is enchanting, but Asa Butterfield, as Hugo, gives a solid performance in a role that requires him to carry the film. The film is also rife with Harry Potter alumni: Helen McCrory is Kingsley’s wife, and Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths are part of a parallel series of plots that depict the daily life of those who work in the station.
Hugo isn’t perfect. At times the film drags, and a scene involving a professor of cinema (Michael Stuhlbarg) piles on the exposition. It’s necessary for those who have never heard of Melies, who I’m sure are 99.9 percent of the audience, but it plays kind of deadly. There’s also a bizarre inconsistency of accents. The children have British accents, but others have sort of French accents, and Cohen’s seems Germanic.
But those concerns are largely ignorable, as the sense of magic and wonder will stick with me for a long time. The film will bear repeat viewings, as there are sorts of things to spot–I think I saw James Joyce and Salvador Dali in the station, and unless I miss my guess, Johnny Depp (who is one of the producers) has a cameo as the guitarist Django Reinhardt.
My grade for Hugo: A-.