Martin Scorsese’s new film, Hugo, is a remarkable, deeply satisfying work of art. With a screenplay by John Logan based upon Brian Selznick’s 2007 Caldecott award-winning children’s book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Hugo is a family film that transcends the genre, reminding us of how wondrous and entrancing filmmaking can be at its very best.
The eponymous Hugo is an orphan living alone in a train station (the Gare Montparnasse) in Paris. Hugo lives by his wits and light thievery, creating cover for himself by continuing to run the enormous station clocks that his wayward uncle has abandoned. Hugo’s father was a watchmaker and taught Hugo many skills. Together they worked on repairing an ingenious automaton (with the ability, when in good working order, to write) salvaged by Hugo’s father from a museum. Even after his father’s death, Hugo continues to try and repair the automaton, believing that when he has it up and running again it will bring him a message from his father. Hugo does succeed in repairing the automaton, and the message it brings him leads him on a grand adventure involving friendship, family, and the magic of the movies themselves.
Saying only this, however, might lead one to believe, as I believed before seeing it, that the tone of this story is one with that of the Harry Potter films, or any other fantasy children’s film. But this is not the case. Hugo is not high fantasy, though it has certain whimsical elements and plenty of excitement. Its tone is rather more meditative, at times even melancholy (should I say more French?), and generally takes a more dramatic slant on its central theme of time and how to redeem it.
Coming to grips with loss, with the pain of being unable to recapture or undo the past, is certainly one concern of Hugo. But at its core the film presents a quest for redemption, a search for the key to fixing the brokenness of human beings. The analogy at the heart of the film is between the broken automaton and the brokenness of the human beings associated with it. It may not seem on the surface a felicitous comparison, considering human beings as machine-like. But Hugo makes good use of the analogy insofar as to indicate, as Hugo himself remarks, that like machines the world, and every human being within it, has a purpose, and that nothing happens that doesn’t have some point.
On the way toward finding his purpose Hugo encounters friendship in a girl named Isabelle, and the unsentimental portrayal of their friendship is lovely, and happily never even entertains the temptation to introduce the sexual element into their tween affection. Hugo also encounters a mystery involving the early history of the movies, and some of the most charming parts of the film are the scenes in which Scorsese presents a cinematic valentine to the work of the early French filmmaker, George Méliès.
Hugo offers a fairy tale view of Paris in the Twenties, with superb costuming, set design and acting. Ben Kingsley gives a memorable turn as George Méliès, and the young and richly- talented Asa Butterfield and Cloë Grace Moretz deserve special kudos for their performances as Hugo and Isabelle. The impressionistic performances by Christopher Lee, Emily Mortimer, Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths, all characters in the train station, are also charming. Helen McCrory deserves congratulation for her role as the wife of George Méliès.
Sacha Baron Cohen, finally, does very well in the role of the Station Inspector, but the only quibble I have with Hugo is the two coarse comments his character utters, not funny to begin with, but also completely out of keeping with the tone of the rest of the film. They clunk as alarmingly as the spanner with which Hugo just misses hitting his character.
Go see Hugo. Though not officially a Christmas movie, it offers family entertainment of the highest order that resonates beautifully with the themes of the coming Season.