Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sasha Baron Cohen, etc.
———————-Full review with spoilers below———————-
Ben Sherman told me once that “nostalgia” comes from the Greek words νόστος (nóstos), meaning “returning home”, and ἄλγος (álgos), meaning “pain, ache”.
Nostalgia is exactly what Hugo evokes. A delicate melancholy. A deep sense of yearning to revisit the place that we ache to go again. Using the most modern resources of contemporary filmmaking, Scorsese returns us to the early days of cinema. To the birth of films with the Lumière brothers in 1895; the anniversary of which was just a few days ago. To the era where film itself was avant-garde. And, to the life and legacy of Georges Méliès.
This is the first film in a very long time that I did not watch a single trailer nor read a single review prior to sitting down in front of the movie screen. Other than knowing that it’s Scorsese’s first dabble into 3D, I had no idea what was in stored. And, for some reason, I had it very firmly in my mind that it’s an animated film. I won’t say much about the production design because I know I can’t do it justice. You’ll have to experience its beauty and grandeur for yourself. My one criticism is the pace of the first two acts of the film. However, its cinematography and its story are beautiful. The opening sequence sweeps across Paris on a snowy evening and into Gare Montparnasse, passing the train platforms and travelers (reminiscent of Goodfellas’ innovative Copacabana shot), and rests finally on the small face of a young boy, Hugo Cabret (played by a talented Asa Butterfield). He’s peering out from behind a clock. These clocks are his windows to the world - both as the aperture and as the confinement. He’s a lonely observer of life, rather than a participant.
Life. Its joys come from the interactions and shared memories with the people whose lives intersect with ours. Wonderfully written by John Logan, the script is dotted with smart humor amidst the nostalgia. From the rigid station inspector (played with terrific comedic timing by Sasha Baron Cohen) and his affections for the lovely flower girl (Emily Mortimer), to the woman (Frances de la Tour) with the dachsund and her suitor (Richard Griffiths), Hugo observes a world that lives on without him. Asa Butterfield (who has just landed the coveted role of Ender Wiggins) is a wonderfully expressive young actor. His emotions seem genuine, and his reactions are organic and rarely overdone. Through those soft eyes, one can see the misery of his loneliness, the hope for a place to belong.
Hugo has a talent for fixing broken machines, a talent inherited from his father (an affective cameo by Jude Law) who was a master clockmaker. Fittingly, Hugo now maintains all the clocks inside the train station. This is not a source of income since no one knows he’s the custodian of these pieces of timekeeping. Hugo lives secretly inside the walls of the station. He steals food to keep from starving. And he steals parts from a nearby toy shop to repair an automaton left behind by his father. Into this restoration, Hugo has poured all of his spirit and all the loving memories of his father.
The repair of this mechanical man is the prelude and connection to Hugo’s undertaking at mending another broken man - Georges Méliès himself. Once a pioneer of movies, he’s now forgotten. Portrayed with great poignancy and balance by Sir Ben Kingsley, Méliès sits in solitude in his toy shop and endures the passing of time. Much like the broken automaton, he’s lost his purpose. His sense of self-worth has withered to an empty shell, the parts within no longer connect. Films, once the medium that allowed him to dream, have become a source of sadness and regret. So much so that he prohibits his god-daughter Isabelle from going to the theaters.
Isabelle (the clever and precocious Chloë Grace Moretz) is a well-loved child full of dreams and imagination. She finds great adventures in another medium that has seen better days - books. Isabelle and Hugo introduce each other to their own havens. Eventually, their adventures steer into an exploration into the history of films, and the discovery of Papa Georges’ forgotten past. The history of films. Scorsese sweeps us off our feet and whisks us away to the era when cinema is where one goes to dream. To a time when film editing means literally cutting and gluing frames of actual film negatives. Special effects are not much more than smokes and mirrors, like the diversions of a stage magician, used sparingly and always with purpose.
Georges Méliès - like Scorsese - was an inventive filmmaker, pushing the boundaries of filmmaking techniques. His movie could be seen in color (before the invention of color television) because the film was tinted by hand, frame by frame. To Méliès, and to Scorsese as well, “films have the power to capture dreams”. That’s what cinema was once. In one of his most famous works, Le Voyage dans la Lune, Méliès’ iconic image of a rocket into the face of the moon is an exposition of a visionary artist. I would imagine that most people would not be familiar with the name Georges Méliès, but many would recognize that sketch. The magic of cinema is his lasting legacy.
But times have changed. None more evident than in one of the most heartbreaking scenes in recent years, we see the life’s work of a legend being consumed, mutated, and resold to fit the trend of the time. Movies are now rarely driven by pure imagination. The smokes and mirrors of CGI are suffocating the originality of the art. A great tribute to its director, even though Hugo is filmed in 3D, Scorsese used it smartly, infrequently, only as a means to highlight moments in the story, rather than distracts from it. The same for its music.
Hugo’s score is wonderful. Imagine if Michael Giacchino’s Parisian, jazzy, lighthearted Ratatouille seasons Howard Shore’s highly emotive styles from LOTR. The playful melody when Hugo is running from the station inspector and his Doberman. The wistful notes that float along in the scene with Hugo’s father. The jovial and boundless accompaniment to the retelling of Papa Georges’ imaginative passion for cinema. From beginning to end, Howard Shore builds an enchanting atmosphere, a potent companion of nostalgia.
Hugo is more than a film. Hugo is a vessel, a time machine that transports us back to the moments we ache to find again. On the surface, this is the story of a young boy who mends the timekeepers of a train station in Paris, whose path intersect with a magician-turned-film legend, and both lives are changed for the better. But really, this is a journey home, a return to a place where you know you are loved. For Hugo, for Papa Georges, for Scorsese, and for cinema itself. Hugo is magical. Hugo is timeless.