Wednesday 6 May 2020

Movie Review: Hugo (2011)

A love letter to the origins of movie making, Martin Scorsese's Hugo is a story of loss and wondrous discovery through the eyes of children.

The setting is Paris in the early 1930s. 12 year old Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan living in the Montparnasse train station, operating the large clocks while evading the orphan-hunting station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). Hugo idolized his father (Jude Law), and together they were fixing an old automaton when dad died in a fire. Hugo continues work on the automaton by stealing components from the toy store of the surly Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley).

After Papa catches the young boy in the act, Hugo meets the toy-seller's adventure-loving goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) and introduces her to the joy of watching movies. Together they finish fixing the automaton, and it reveals a visual clue related to legendary French filmmaker Georges Méliès. Hugo and Isabelle must now understand the clue's significance, a quest that introduces them to film historian René Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Papa's wife Jeanne (Helen McCrory).

The most un-Scorsese movie made by Martin Scorsese, Hugo is a child-friendly unabashed salute to the early days of cinema and the magical spell cast by moving pictures on the young and old. The healing properties of the flickering screen, from lifting spirits to changing life trajectories, are captured with loving affection through the experiences of curious children intent on finding adventure.

The film is slow to start, as Scorsese uses young Hugo (a vibrant Asa Butterfield) as an entry point to the grand world of a bustling train station. With frequently fluid and exploratory camerawork, Montparnasse is revealed as a public place teaming with travelers and workers, but also a private refuge where Hugo is stranded after the death of his father and disappearance of his uncle (the Dickinsian Ray Winstone). He uses his wits and talent to survive, inexorably drawn to the shop of Papa Georges to surreptitiously secure parts needed to repair the automaton.

Once Hugo befriends Papa's goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz nailing the mischievous book lover with a penchant for over elaborate words) and the automaton reveals its secret, the film gains unstoppable nostalgic momentum. The past and the present come together to chart a new future, and Scorsese taps into a deep river of admiration for his industy's pioneers.

The film features several nods to the earliest achievements placed on film, including Train Pulling into a Station (Hugo's setting is no coincidence), Harold Lloyd's Safety Last! (neither are the clocks) and Georges Méliès's A Trip To The Moon. Meanwhile, the automaton central to the story is familiar from Metropolis.

Hugo is not without its faults. The film unnecessarily extends beyond two hours, with a few too many scenes of the Inspector and his dog chasing kids around the station. The whimsy factor sometimes trips into overindulgence, Scorsese seemingly entranced by the hidden maze of hallways connecting all the gears operating the station clocks.

But with a distinctive visual style, the transformative power of creativity easily rises to the top. Despite confinement to the forgotten corners of a train station, Hugo still uncovers the gateway to new worlds through the projector's flicker.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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