Not quite kids’ stuff

This Dick­en­sian yarn uses 3D more ef­fec­tively than any other drama, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Opinion -

AT A RE­CENT in­dus­try screen­ing of this ex­tra­or­di­nary (mostly in good ways) Dick­en­sian yarn, Martin Scors­ese “warned” the au­di­ence that they were about to watch a fam­ily film.

One can un­der­stand where he was com­ing from. Quite a few par­ents, shoul­der­ing mem­o­ries of one too many Smurfs, have come to view such a prospect – of­ten code for “kids’ stuff” – with for­giv­able de­grees of sus­pi­cion.

A gor­geously com­posed, qui­etly mov­ing evo­ca­tion of in­ter-war Paris, Hugo has a great deal to rec­om­mend it. The film en­gages

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clev­erly with the early his­tory of cinema. It uses 3D more ef­fec­tively (and to greater the­matic pur­pose) than any other drama made dur­ing the unlovely process’s cur­rent reign of ter­ror. Like a much hap­pier Hieronymus Bosch, Scors­ese fills ev­ery cor­ner with di­vert­ing, lov­ingly de­tailed vi­gnettes. But you couldn’t re­ally call it a kids’ movie.

Yes, there are chil­dren in it. There were, how­ever, also young peo­ple in The Ex­or­cist and The White Rib­bon, and those som­bre pieces are rarely re­garded as fam­ily films. This is a pic­ture fea­tur­ing cameos from James Joyce and Django Rein­hardt. One of its prime themes is the im­por­tance of pre­serv­ing his­toric cel­lu­loid. No­body is likely to con­fuse Hugo with Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chip­wrecked.

This is not, of course, to sug­gest that many chil­dren will not savour Hugo. The young Martin Scors­ese would al­most cer­tainly have loved it. Come to think of it, Hugo may very well be about the young Martin Scors­ese.

Based on a novel by Brian Selznick, Hugo tells the story of a Parisian lad (Asa But­ter­field from The Boy in the Striped Py­ja­mas) who, or­phaned and aban­doned, lives within the clock of the Gare Mont­par­nasse. The hero winds the mighty time­piece and keeps it main­tained, but he also has a pri­vate ob­ses­sion. Shortly be­fore his un­timely death, Hugo’s fa­ther (Jude Law) showed the boy a beau­ti­fully made me­tal­lic au­toma­ton. The hero longs to find the heart-shaped key that makes the ma­chine work.

Like a younger, less mo­rose Quasi­modo, Hugo sits be­hind the clock face watch­ing life un­fold be­neath him. A large painter (Richard Grif­fiths) tries to ro­mance a shy lady (Frances de la Tour), but he can­not get past her fierce lap­dog. An uptight po­lice­man (Sacha Baron Co­hen), keen on round­ing up stray or­phans, makes oc­ca­sional at­tempts to cap­ture the hero. And a sad older man (Ben Kings­ley) runs a some­what un­der­whelm­ing toy stall.

One day, the toy ven­dor catches Hugo steal­ing from his shop. He con­fis­cates the lad’s notebook and the two find their lives in­ter­twin­ing.

It tran­spires that the cur­mud­geon – played with el­e­gant sad­ness by Kings­ley – is none other than the great film-maker and con­jurer Ge­orges Méliès. The fi­nal third of Hugo con­cerns it­self with the re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion and re­ju­ve­na­tion of the cin­e­matic pioneer.

Ar­guably the in­ven­tor of spe­cial ef­fects, al­ways at home to a gim­mick, Méliès would surely have ap­proved of Scors­ese’s de­ci­sion to shoot the film in 3D. Fea­tur­ing many yawn­ing spa­ces, graced with el­e­gant snow­falls, Hugo fea­tures sly tributes to Ge­orges in ev­ery eye-pop­ping shot.

As the pic­ture pro­gresses, it be­comes ever less in­ter­ested in its char­ac­ters and ever more con­cerned with the medium it­self. Hugo and Is­abelle (Chloë Moretz), Méliès’s god­daugh­ter, sneak into a cinema to watch a Harold Lloyd pic­ture. A stun­ning mon­tage takes us through many of the great silent movies. The busy sta­tion se­quences – dom­i­nated by a sur­pris­ingly un­der­pow­ered, clank­ingly off-key Baron Co­hen – pulse with rhythms de­vised by Jac­ques Tati.

The end re­sult is a glo­ri­ous cel­e­bra­tion of cinema that avoids seem­ing forced, arch or snarky.

Few such clever films have felt so in­gen­u­ous and heart­felt. In that sense Hugo is, I sup­pose, some­what child­like. But I’m still not sure it’s for chil­dren.

Play­time: Ben Kings­ley and Asa But­ter­field in Hugo

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