Hugo (2011)

Hugo oozes charm from each and every frame but more importantly, as a lover of cinema and a great fan of Martin Scorsese, I found Hugo a genuinely touching film. For instance, the scene in which Georges Mêlées’ (Ben Kingsley) recovered films are given a public screening made me weep unashamedly with joy as Scorsese illustrated the charm and wonder of those early experimentations in cinema. I am not joking – I really choked up at that point. This is where the film is at it’s most personal, where Scorsese attempts to share the wonder of his childhood cinema experiences. There is an example of this earlier on, the scene where Hugo (Asa Butterfield) takes Isabel (Chloe Grace Moretz) to her first movie. Scorsese beautifully captures the thrill of her experience, the feeling that something magical is happening. There is point where the human brain with all of its wonderful receptiveness makes a connection to cinema and lets us react to the screened events as if they where really happening. Scorsese has the alchemical formula for this particular reaction (and a few others besides) and Hugo cements his place as the grand wizard of cinema.

The idea that cinema is magic colliding with reality is one that permeates Hugo right to the bone. The film is presented as a part fairytale, part biopic. Much of the tale concerning Georges Mêlées is taken from his real life. He was a magician turned filmmaker, he did build automatons, he did willfully destroy most of his life’s work in a fire, and he ended up a relatively poor and unknown man working in a shop in a Paris railway station.

Scorsese weaves these facts with fiction in a manner that is refreshingly devoid of cynicism, and becomes a love letter to film, filmmakers, and film lovers. Those of its audience unfamiliar with the pioneering work of Mêlées need not feel left out. Hugo can be taken as a complete fantasy. But some of those same audience members may find themselves going home and Googling the name of this amazing filmmaker. What with Scorsese being an avid film preservationist and historian one strongly suspects that this was part of the director’s (noble) intention.

The automaton from Hugo.

Robert Richardson makes the film look suitably sumptuous. Hugo has a rich colour scheme, and Richardson excels at enriching colours. It is nice to see that Richardson refrained from his signature ‘super bright white toplight’ for Hugo (I have nothing against it – indeed it is quite effective – but Hugo certainly didn’t need it). The Paris railway station is an invitingly warm, golden brown chocolately place, a space you want to stay in forever.

Scorsese recreates Mêlées’ film sets with the kind of attention to detail he is renown for, and those scenes were a particular thrill for this little film buff. Indeed the production design of the whole film is incredible, creating a completely involving magic-realist Parisian world that you never doubt the authenticity of for one moment.

The performances, while not Oscar worthy, are solid. Moretz is the stand-out as the enchanting and inquisitive Isabel. Kingsley is convincing enough as the heartbroken Mêlées. The strange anomaly of this film may well be that of all the performances, it is actually Scorsese’s role behind the camera that overshadows all. You can just feel him there, authoring the tale in his unmistakable voice. I don’t think I’m the only (or even the first) person to notice that Scorsese is in every pore of this film.

What is undeniable about Hugo is that Scorsese has poured his heart and soul into it. It’s all about love with Hugo and love is meticulously embedded in every frame. The concept, the construction, the cinematic tricks, even the use of 3D – everything serves the aim of reminding us of the absolute magic of cinema. Hugo took me right back to my childhood, to the very first time I went to a movie (it was Mike Hodges’ 1980 film, Flash Gordon – lucky me!). The film is such a deft expression of the way movies make us feel as children, and should make us feel as adults. What perfect sentiments to begin 2012 with. Thanks (again) Marty!