I really didn’t know what to expect when I finally managed to see Hugo. I’d seen the trailers in the cinema and had assumed it was a family movie but that was all I knew. I didn’t know the plot details, apart from seeing that an automaton was involved, and I didn’t even know the tone of the film – would it be a comedy, a drama or a fairytale? All I knew was that Martin Scorsese was the director and that was enough for me.
Let’s begin with the most important thing to make clear. Hugo isn’t really a children’s movie although it is for the inner child who resides in every movie lover and recalls that first magical trip to the cinema. Yes, although it may not be obvious from the very beginning, this is a movie all about cinema and it’s made BY a cineast FOR cineasts. Do bear that in mind because I’m about to briefly explain the plot in a spoiler-free way that will have you wondering just what any of it has to do with cinema.
Asa Butterfield plays Hugo, an orphan who lives in the walls of a train station in 1930s Paris. He spends his time winding all of the clocks, avoiding the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) and stealing bits and pieces from a toy seller (Ben Kingsley) in order to fix an automaton that he hopes will eventually work well enough to provide him with some kind of message from his deceased father. When the toy seller catches him one day it sets in motion a chain of events that neither could have foreseen, events that may well change their lives forever.
What has any of that to do with cinema? On the surface, nothing, but do trust me when I tell you that Hugo is a love letter to cinema through and through and that once you’ve seen the film and enjoyed all that it has to offer you will probably want to watch it all over again to take in the references, details and homages that you missed the first time around when you didn’t know what direction the material was going in.
The script by John Logan (based on the source material by Brian Selznick) is fine, characters are nicely fleshed out and everything happens for a reason. It puts over all of the information required and then some, working with the visuals to provide a rich and immensely satisfying tapestry to enjoy again and again.
As for those visuals, this is the most beautiful movie that Scorsese has ever released. It has the look and style, in places, of a motion captured Robert Zemeckis film but, unlike that director, Scorsese keeps things looking as real as they are gorgeous. His camera moves and stylish moments work with the rhythm of the movie as opposed to the way in which things can grind to a halt whenever Zemeckis wants to allow himself a show off sequence. As slick and enjoyable, from a technical standpoint, as any other movie that he’s done, there’s also a great joy to be had in seeing the director marry his style to such atypical fare. And cameo fans will enjoy seeing his brief appearance as a photographer for Ben Kingsley and Helen McCrory (blink and you’ll miss him).
Everything is enriched by the wonderful cast. Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz play the two young lead characters with a sweetness and sense of wonder as they help each other and become close friends. Ben Kingsley is simply superb, giving the kind of performance that easily reminds you of just why he is such a highly regarded actor. Sacha Baron Cohen, however, gives him a run for his money, starting off as a standard, bumbling villain that we’ve seen a hundred times before and developing into someone with good, albeit misguided, intentions. Jude Law and Ray Winstone both have very little time onscreen but portray characters who cast large shadows over proceedings. Helen McCrory is very good, as are Emily Mortimer, Michael Stuhlbarg and Christopher Lee. Their characters may not seem very important to the casual viewer but, indeed, the other joy of this movie is realising just how each person and each small event helps to shape the big picture.
A difficult film to recommend in some ways (it didn’t exactly light up the box office, it doesn’t really work as a “kid’s movie”, casual filmgoers may take less from it, etc) but I really think that if you have the patience for it then you will be drawn into a world of magic and delight that you will find immensely rewarding and then, like myself, you will look forward to watching and rewatching it to drink in every loving detail.
DIRECTOR: MARTIN SCORSESE
WRITER: JOHN LOGAN (BASED ON THE BOOK BY BRIAN SELZNICK)
STARS: ASA BUTTERFIELD, CHLOE GRACE MORETZ, BEN KINGSLEY, SACHA BARON COHEN, HELEN MCCRORY, EMILY MORTIMER, MICHAEL STUHLBARG, JUDE LAW, RAY WINSTONE, CHRISTOPHER LEE
RUNTIME: 126 MINS APPROX