Not quite kids’ stuff
This Dickensian yarn uses 3D more effectively than any other drama, writes Donald Clarke
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
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