5 December 2011
So, from the director of Taxi Driver, Goodfellas and The Departed, comes this U-certificate family movie, based on a popular children's novel by Brian Selznick. Hugo Cabret is an intelligent and technically-minded boy, who is orphaned after his father dies in a tragic museum-related accident. His drunken uncle, Claude, decides to skive off his job, winding the clocks in a Paris railway station, and put Hugo to work in his place. Hugo moves into the station, living in a hidden apartment and scavenging parts to try and repair his father's legacy- an old-timey automaton that they were restoring together.
It doesn't happen often, but when a director, principally known for his crime epics, suddenly decides to make a children's film, titled for the first name of the young protagonist, I'm involuntarily reminded of Francis Ford Coppola's Jack. Yes, he really did direct that- look it up. Happily, Scorsese dispels any doubts about his passion project within the first five minutes, a joyful introduction to the status quo of the train station, as young Hugo eludes the buffoon-ish station inspector, played by Sacha Baron Cohen, and leaves chaos in his wake. This might not be the Scorsese you know, but his skill as a filmmaker, built over decades of experience, is all up there on screen.
Scorsese's most recent film, Shutter Island, was one of my favourites of last year, and I think it was also something of an experiment. It was a B-movie at heart, albeit with the calibre of a Hitchcock melodrama, and I enjoyed the hell out of it. And now, his first foray into kids' movies, which takes the form of an accessible and diverting lecture on film preservation, and the early days of cinema. The director even employs an avatar, a film historian played by Michael Stuhlbarg, to ambitiously and effectively convey his passion to a new audience.
Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, which is also directly referenced once the film delves into the beginning of cinema. It's like the train was really coming towards them...
The passion for cinema is effectively translated for a young audience, who are clearly being underestimated by those critics who say that this is merely a movie for adults and film fans. If kids have trouble with any of Hugo, I'd expect that it would be, contrary to the thrust of the advertising, the portions of the film that focus on Hugo and the automaton. Once it hits that twist I mentioned, the film becomes much more about early cinema than you had even realised from the silent passages and slapstick humour. And because that's the part about which the director is most passionate, all else seems less buoyant by comparison.
Still, it's never less than watchable, and there are a few constants keeping the film afloat on the way to the real meat of the plot. The carnivalesque cast of characters is led by Baron Cohen, in a terrifically physical run as the tragi-comic station inspector, but also includes Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour in an oddball romantic subplot, and Christopher Lee as the kindly owner of a bookshop. The star is arguably Ben Kingsley, continuing from Shutter Island with another cracking performance, increasingly important to the film as it carries on. In the lead kid roles, Asa Butterfield and Chloe Moretz are disappointingly average, but then their characters are more like ciphers than many of the others.
Hugo is now showing, in 2D and 3D, at cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Hugo, why not share your comments below? If you see it in 3D, tell me if you don't think it was worth it. Y'know, so I can tell you that you're wrong.
I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.