Hugo (2011): review

Asa Butterfield and Ben Kingsley in Hugo (2011)
Asa Butterfield and Ben Kingsley in Hugo (2011)

We’ll never know for certain whether the Lumière brothers’ cinematograph audience really were so terrified by a moving image of a train entering a station that they screamed and ran for the door. It’s an enjoyable urban legend though, and one that appeals to our idea of cinema as an immersive, perfect illusion. Martin Scorsese stages the moment twice in Hugo (2011) and by doing so makes a fair case for the story’s veracity. After all, this is a 3D film, and the savvy 21st-century viewers of this film may well have been flinching and ducking at stereoscopic images of barking dogs and speeding trains – and even the terrified patrons of the Grand Cafe – bursting from the screen.

There is more to Hugo than such cheap shocks, though. Scorsese mostly uses his 3D technology not to reach forward but to create a deep stage, as Georges Méliès so often did, pulling the scenery away from the centre of the frame to reveal more fantastical images within. Hugo‘s astounding, wordless opening sequence plunges from the Paris skyline into a train station clock, where a small boy, our hero, is gazing out at the city – we then follow him through staircases, ladders, corridors and across the concourse in one breathless swoop. It’s at this point that I knew I would want to watch Hugo again – it’s a giddily beautiful shot, and would persuade the hardest heart that there is a place for the intelligent use of 3D in cinema.

Asa Butterfield in Hugo (2011)
Asa Butterfield in Hugo (2011)

Inevitably, the pace drops after that, and the first half of Hugo is really rather a sedate, downhearted affair – particularly for a children’s film. Hugo (played sweetly by Asa Butterfield) is orphan. When his father (Jude Law) dies in a museum fire, and he is adopted by his drunkard uncle (Ray Winstone with a very slippery accent) – whose job it is to wind the clocks at the train station. When the uncle staggers out one day, never to return, Hugo decides to stay in the station winding the clocks and hiding from the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) so as to avoid the authorities. He steals food, and also scraps of clockwork to fix a melancholic automaton his father salvaged from the museum where he worked – sentimentally, Hugo believes that when the robot is working again, it will write him a message from his father. It’s a fond, foolish hope, made more metaphorically adorable still when we realise that the machine won’t work without a key: a heart-shaped key. However, the film is saved from treacly sentiment by the appearance of a young friend for Hugo, the bookish, restless Isabelle (Chloe Moretz) and an enemy too: Ben Kingsley’s curmudgeonly toymaker, Papa Georges.

So much plot – and so many adorable flirtatious sub-plots among the station’s café-owners and stallholders – just to get us to the moment, about halfway through, when the automaton works, and we find out who Papa Georges really is. Now, the pulse of the film finally starts to race as the children voraciously explore the history of silent cinema, and the magical trick films made by Papa Georges in particular. Of course, Papa Georges is Georges Méliès (subtly played by Kingsley), and that’s no spoiler for readers of this blog. Scorsese’s recreation of Méliès’s studio is among Hugo’s most enjoyable sequences – the sugary colours, the pyrotechnics and lo-fi effects could be quaint, but these scenes are rendered with such love and attention to detail, it’s impossible not to feel a sharp cinephile thrill. For once, however, I am tempted to complain that this adaptation shouldn’t have been so faithful to its source. Brian Selznick’s pencil-illustrated The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a really gorgeous book, but its thin narrative feels even flimsier on the big screen, and spends a good hour pushing Scorsese away from the subject matter that is closest to his heart – and ours.

Hugo (2011)
Hugo (2011)

That said, Hugo has plenty to indulge a silent film aficionado – or to educate a young film buff. Harold Lloyd himself, dangling from the department store clock, and Hugo’s own, less jolly, homage; glimpses of Méliès at work and plenty of his films; the aforementioned Lumière moments; passing references to zoetropes and hand-tinting; even a clip reel of silent highlights. There’s also Baron Cohen’s broad slapstick, a nice sense of early 20th-century history and so many gorgeous movie posters in the background that you’ll want to leap up and freeze the projector. Hugo‘s biggest surprise is that the 3D enhances all this retromania. Whether or not we remember that the Lumières were aiming for 3D effect with that very first train movie, or that they subsequently reshot it with a stereoscopic camera, Hugo‘s look has a freshness and novelty that suits its subject matter. A switch of focus, a camera rushing along the station platform, a series of stepped cuts all look different in 3D – it’s as if we’re seeing these tricks for the very first time.

Hugo (3D) is released in the UK on 2 December 2011. And if you want to see some of Méliès’s films on the big screen – the Cine Lumière has two screenings planned for the weeks following the release.

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