Time Frames

Martin Scorsese's new film Hugo is wonderful- and frustrating but definitely worth seeing.
Words: John Connors

Sometimes a film arrives that defies categorisation and simply sits majestically in its own space. Though marketed- somewhat erroneously- as a children’s movie, Hugo is such an enterprise. While not without flaws and sometimes struggling to contain a narrative packed with exposition, Hugo is a delight because someone dared to make it.

There are easier ways of telling the time...

In the early 1930s, twelve year old Hugo Cabret lives in the bowels of Paris railway station, eking an existence with stolen food while he keeps the clocks on time, a task taught him by his now missing alcoholic uncle who reluctantly took him on after Hugo’s inventor father died in a fire at the museum where he worked. The boy’s only tangible reminder of his father is a metal automaton and the plans to make it so he steals items from a second hand stall in the station market to try and complete the project. He believes the automaton, which sits with a pen in its hand, will have a message for him if he can get it to work. When the stall’s cantankerous owner catches him stealing and takes the notebook, Hugo receives unexpected help from the old man’s god-daughter Isabelle which in turn leads to a much bigger sort of adventure.
It sounds good enough you’d think and indeed it is. The first half of the film is glowing with a warmth, intricacy and imagination that fuels the best children’s stories- i.e. the ones adults can enjoy as well.  Sacha Baron Cohen’s station Inspector who sends stray boys to the orphanage adds a hissable if accident prone villain whose calamities will have younger viewers amused. Then there is a mid way tonal shift that effectively kicks any idea of Hugo being a kid’s film into touch as it blossoms into a butterfly like adult life which celebrates the creative genius of one of the art form’s pioneers.

"That's SIR Ben Kingsley to you, lad"

Isabelle’s god father, you see, is long lost film director George Melies and the rest of the film concerns his story. This is clearly what attracted Martin Scorsese to what would otherwise not be his kind of movie and it’s an odd sort of fit in theory. Such a delicate balance could easily turn into a mess or indeed mush but in the hands of Scorsese, Hugo becomes something quite beautiful, thoughtful and sympathetic. The children who enjoyed the station hi jinks will be mystified!
The script does take a little too much on though; as well as the already lengthy main story we have inserts depicting the tentative relationship between two older eccentrics- played with aplomb by Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths - as well as the station inspector’s hidden infatuation with flower stall owner Lisette (Emily Mortimer) . These are lovely touches subtly played with silent movie style panache- perhaps this is the idea, they are all part of the tribute- but stretch the running time to near uncomfortable length. Also, having taken himself to a place where we are cheering his every move, Hugo himself becomes something of a cipher later on, his history relegated to unanswered questions particularly surrounding the issue of who did set fire to the museum. It feels like two separate films have somehow merged into each other.
"Yes, it is a real moustache. Why do you ask monsieur?"
However reproducing the era of Melies, as best as we can know it, or in making the railway station a dynamic play ground, Scorsese excels and you sense that like many of his films repeated viewing will be needed to fully absorb every aspect. It may seem an odd juxtaposition for a tribute to the earliest days of cinema to be using the very latest 3D technology but Scorsese perhaps sees in today’s developments the same pioneering spirit that drove George Melies in the 1900s.  And make no mistake; he develops 3D more than any other director has yet done. He understands that it works not when you throw things out of the film at the viewer- as seems to have quickly become the norm- nor when you try and dazzle by showing off, but in simply bringing us inside the film. As his restless cameras explore the station we see dazzling detail of the likes never before captured in a 3D film from the dust particles in the air to the clogging masses of steam or the cold of the snow outside. In a dazzling opening sequence we follow Hugo around the conduits, pipes and walkways of the place as he darts from clock to clock and the sense of place and of movement is the best 3D you’ve seen, better even than Avatar, because it feels so real.
Asa Butterfield, a promising Mordred in the TV series Merlin- has an expressive face and an emotional response to the material but does not necessarily get the best lines. You can see the actor wanting to push the boy’s feistiness yet once marooned in a sea of old films he loses his place in his own film. Nonetheless Butterfield makes a big impact early on and will surely go on to quite a career. The script does not really pin Hugo’s character down enough and later delights in putting him in somewhat bizarre peril, just to reproduce scenes from famous movies, notably his dangling from the station clock face. While charming, this starts to seem contrived and there are probably loads of other similar homage’s only cinephiles could spot. By the end it feels as if we are being treated to a (nonetheless fascinating) education rather than an entertainment. As Melies, Ben Kingsley shows his classy side, never overplaying the old man and at the end, when it counts, allowing a subtle depiction rather than an over emotional one. Chloe Moritz as Isabelle, confirms her potential as one of Hollywood’s brightest young stars.

"C3PO? Never heard of 'im, guv"

Hugo is a film that fascinates for its artistry yet frustrates for its diversions and incompleteness but is always interesting. Perhaps this is the mark of a great work though it is certainly a difficult film to sell to any particular audience, evidenced by the largely half empty cinemas it has been playing to. A film like this struggles in today’s market dominated by branding and of target audiences though it has already been nominated for a slew of awards. Ultimately maybe its reputation will grow and one day, rather like Melies, will be rediscovered and delight a future generation. Or perhaps why not go and see it now?

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