Hugo (2011)

08 December 2011

As soon as I came out of Hugo on Tuesday I sent the following text message to several friends: "HUGO is unbearably long, sugary, romantic, fantastical, and terribly written. It has certain appeals but little edge. I saw it in 2d, and am not interested in a dramatically weak exercise to showcase how good '3d can be'. A celebration of [Méliès]'s kind of cinema, it betrays something we've known about Scorsese for years, namely that he has little to say about the world, and fancies cinema as something that allows us to escape from it. That's fair and dandy, of course, but he oughtn't be celebrated as much else." Days later, none of these sentiments have diminished.

Adapated by John Logan from Brian Selznick's imaginative 2007 book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the film is set in a 1930s Paris train station, whose clocks are fixed and maintained by Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), a 12-year-old orphaned when his father (Jude Law), a clock-mender, died in a fire. Inheriting from him an automaton that requires a mysterious, missing key in order to operate, Hugo carries with him a book of drawings pertaining to the mechanical toy. When the book is confiscated by Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), the keeper of a toy store who suspects Hugo of thieving from him, Hugo meets the old man's goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). A friendship ensues, and together the children discover that Hugo's automaton is in some way related to Papa Georges.

Georges turns out to be Georges Méliès, the pioneer of narrative cinema who, after attending the 1895 first public screenings of films made by the Lumière brothers in Paris, invented his own camera and employed ingenious techniques and trickery to advance illusory, fantastical tales. Of the 500 plus films he made, Méliès's most famous is 1902's A Trip to the Moon.

At the onset of the first world war, Méliès's film company went bankrupt, and many of his films were sold to be melted down into boot heels for the French military. They remain lost to this day, though of those that remain, the artist's imagination, energy and humour are all still apparent. It is no surprise that Martin Scorsese was drawn immediately to Selznick's book, buying filming rights the year it was released. As such, the film is not only an adaptation, but an extended homage to Méliès and his fantastical brand of "cinemagic".

Given Scorsese's previous and ongoing investment in impassioned and personal documentaries, Hugo proves an interesting point of departure, in that it accommodates both the historian and storyteller in the director, but is nevertheless a unique addition to his filmography, in that it's a "children's film". Marketed as such, however, it betrays some of the film's problems: at over two hours, Hugo feels unwarrantedly bloated, whilst beside the improvised naturalism of 1973's Mean Streets or even the incessant-cum-winning vulgarity of 2006's The Departed, its comedy seems forced. But if gross overlength and too self-conscious an appeal to the more innocent slapstick of early cinema risk bringing the film down, what drowns it is its indulgent emotionalism - sincere though this may be.

What makes this "Martin Scorsese's first children's film" is its target demographic. But for years now, Scorsese himself has approached recurrent subject matter with a child-like awe: GoodFellas (1990) was a lavish, overawed "insider's view" of the Mafia, while Casino (1995) provided its director with another opportunity to blend real-life violence with the catchy songs of the period; beyond his gangster films, he has returned in more recent years to history (Gangs of New York in 2002 and The Aviator in 2004) while carving a name for himself as something of a film and music historian (The Aviator again; his entry for documentary series The Blues in 2003; his Bob Dylan documentary, No Direction Home, in 2005; his Rolling Stones concert film, Shine a Light, in 2008; as well as documentaries on Elia Kazan and George Harrison, with a Frank Sinatra documentary also in the works).

Scorsese's fanboy interest is evident in all of these works, which makes them more exciting to watch than genuinely insightful. His own passions come across infectiously enough, but he's a rather limited artist overall. Hugo continues this trend, but with its concession to a younger audience, its problems grate all the more. Narrative patience is fine - Spielberg's made a bunch of textbook features in this regard - but Logan's script is uneven from start to finish. An early moment, in which an apparently sleeping Papa Georges slams his hand upon Hugo's own after the latter tries to creep up to take a toy mouse from the store, indicates a remarkably unimaginative rhythm, whereby each beat is foreseeable and without irony.

Early master shots demonstrate wonderful visual mobility and their synthetic quality is countered by an absorbing, seductive palette of blues and pinks. Unfortunately, as in other recent films, Scorsese tends to move in too close too soon. His actors are varied: Kingsley seems uncomfortable but puts in what he can; Butterfield and Moretz do what they can with an impossibly contrived coming-of-age romantic adventurism that includes class division (she reads books but he doesn't; conversely, he loves films but she's never seen one); Jude Law and Ray Winstone briefly provide opposite ends of the caricature spectrum; and much of the film - too much, in fact - deals with a subplot concerning the interrelated lives of workers at the train station, acted by Emily Mortimer, Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour and Sacha Baron Cohen. The last of these is a bumbling authority figure intended as comic relief; he is largely annoying. The dialogue in general is dreadful.

The lasting impression of Hugo is a sincere film whose director's primary interests are clearly the formal qualities of the medium and the technical innovations of its more celebrated practitioners. The final third of the film doubles as a vindication of its director's admirable ongoing efforts to fund film preservation, restoration and archiving, as well as a celebration of its first illusionist, Georges Méliès. Brief allusions to the Lumière brothers are contextual; Scorsese's investment is in cinema as an escape from the real world and a means of entering another - the most elaborative set-pieces in his own film tellingly take place within dream sequences.

One anticipates now a gushing celebration of the Lumières and the unmatched dynamic of their realism.