Friday, December 9, 2011
Scorsese's Love Letter to Early Cinema
Hugo is a dazzling visual treat that tells the charming story of how a little boy helped rescue the career of Georges Mélies, one of the founding fathers of cinema in the 20th century. Martin Scorsese has given us a marvelous cinematic present with this work, delivering a message that like clockwork, our dreams and passions will be in fine working order at the end of the day. Charming and ever-delightful, this is one of the finest films of this year - as well as the past few years.
Shot in Real 3-D, the film is about a 12-year old boy named Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) who resides at a train station in Paris in 1930. He lives there as an orphan, after his father died in a fire, leaving one of his uncles to take him in at the station, so he could wind the various clocks at that building. Hugo has to steal pastries and fruit from vendors at the station to survive, ensuring a constant surveillance from the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen, in a subdued performance) and his eager doberman.
One day, Hugo is held by Georges (Ben Kingsley), who operates the station's toy store. Georges calls Hugo a thief and demands that he give back all the various tools he has been taking from him. As Hugo returns some of these, Georges also sees that the boy has a small notebook with numerous drawings, the most intriguing of which are of a human face, each one slightly different, so that when he flips through the pages in a hurry, the face moves as in a motion picture. Georges seizes the book, much to the disappointment of Hugo.
This is critical scene in the film, as we see that Hugo has been stealing tools in order to fix an automaton, a robot that his father and he had been working on for some time. Now following his father's death, the need to repair this robot - and thus learn of an important detail that will open up a new world to Hugo - is a driving factor in his life. When he soon meets Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), a similarly-aged young girl who is Georges' goddaughter, Hugo will find the missing tool to repair the automaton and realize his dreams.
This sets things up for one of the most delightful scenes in the film, as Isabelle has the heart-shaped key that is the final piece needed to operate the automaton. The machine comes to life, slowly creating an amazingly detailed drawing of an image from the famous film, A Trip to the Moon, directed by George Mélies, who was celebrated for his amazing work on hundreds of films decades earlier, but who then suffered a career downfall and is presumed dead. It turns out he did not die, but is indeed Georges, the owner of the toy store. The drawing that Hugo and Isabelle take to Georges will unlock the mystery of his career.
The film, up to that point a marvelous tale of Hugo's trials and tribulations at the train station, now takes on a new identity, that of Martin Scorsese's love of early cinema, especially that of Mélies. Scorsese goes to great lengths - along with his brilliant production designer Dante Ferretti - to bring to life what Mélies' cinematic work must have looked like. This sequence, showing rehearsals of actors costumed as everything from ghosts to pirates to oversized crustaceans, is simply delightful. Scorsese goes on to show us how some of these scenes were filmed and edited and the result is sheer, unadulterated admiration of Scorsese's love for the trailblazing work of Mélies.
A note on the Real 3D process in this film; it works beautifully and is rarely used to call attention to itself. Speaking simply as a viewer, it's also a lot of fun, especially in the opening sequence, when you are positive that snowflakes from the Paris winter are going to land in your lap - they're that close. Even small pieces of dust are shown flying through the train station and boy, does that doberman look threatening in the foreground of several shots - watch out! The 3D is a lovely addition to this film not only in a surface level way, but also an emotional way, as when we see Hugo emerge from behind the giant clock at the station, looking and feeling quite inconsequential. Leave it to Scorsese to bring 3D technology to a peak, at least so far.
Scorsese has been reunited with several of his favorite collaborators here and what craftsmanship they bring to this film! The cinematography by Robert Richardson is brilliantly accomplished, the costumes by Sandy Powell are just right, the editing by Thelma Schoonmaker is seamless and the lovely score by Howard Shore is very sweet and touching. All of these artists will surely receive Oscar nominations as will Feretti, who seems to me at least, to be a lock for an Academy Award. It's the contributions of these supremely talented individuals along with Scorsese's confident and usual technically proficient direction that add so much to the enjoyment of this film.
So yes, Hugo is a superb film on a visual level, but it is also an enchanting story beautifully told by Scorsese that will enthrall a wide range of audiences. "They'd never seen anything like it before," Isabelle tells Hugo, when recalling the audience reaction to an early film of Mélies. No doubt, you'll be sharing a similar thought after viewing Hugo.
I can't wait to see it again!
P.S. One final note on the performance of Ben Kingsley as George Mélies. This is a touching, lovely, bittersweet turn by the great actor and one of his best. His characterization is one that carries a lot of emotional weight with it and Kingsley finds the perfect balance that helps this film find its grace and captivating appeal.