Hugo is one of the world’s most saccharine stories – about a boy named Martin Scorsese who discovers the magic of cinema and never lets go, but it serves up such fantastic insight and visual beauty that it instantly becomes a lucid dream, a hand crafted masterpiece.
Going against all his gangster drama roots, Scorsese offers a film in which the characters are defined by fleeting moments of softness and visual pizzazz. The startling effect of Hugo is that months later, the film feels as though you've lived it. The imagery is just extraordinary and seems like something out of a Van Gogh painting, because the colors really pop. It's gorgeous.
Nothing stands central in Hugo except the sheer awe and wonder experienced through the childlike eyes of the director himself. Scorsese finds an impeccable style here - what could have been a routine kids film flourishes with his flair of light and colour, both in imagery and characterization. Asa Butterfield plays Hugo Cabret, an orphan who lives in a giant clock at a Paris train station in the 1930’s. His late father (Jude Law) has left him a strange machine, a mechanical man that he’d bought from a museum. In an attempt to fix the machine Hugo steals parts from a store at the station, but the owner Georges (Ben Kingsley), catches him red handed. Georges also takes away a mysterious book that Hugo's father had given him, and the kid seeks the help of the old timer’s granddaughter (Chloe Moretz) to reclaim the book and fix the machine. Along the way he tackles the bitter station constable (Sasha Baron Cohen) and uncovers a major cinematic secret that has been shrouded for dozens of years.
Hugo plays like a love letter to the inception of cinema against the decline of old tradition and the subjugation of the film industry to the changing interests of audiences, and the caustic influence of the West. Cinematographer Robert Richardson orchestrates the film's blossoming homages with care, and Scorsese never forces the issue - he lets the passing of time reflect everything from modern digitalization of cinema to the inevitable fade of magic realism on the screen. What's so delicate and absorbing is the way Scorsese melds the personal, fictional and the historical in a way that keeps those seams from showing.
The level of craft here is just dazzling. Right from the opening scene featuring a long tracking shot at the train station the camera floats around like a magic carpet. And unlike in most other films, the 3D here works with such flamboyance that you barely realize you've been amazed. It is clear that Scorsese is in love with 1930’s France, and Howard Shore’s music only adds to the beauty. Add to all this the wonderful performances from the child actors Butterfield and Moretz who are just perfectly cast, as are Kingsely, Cohen and Helen McCrory who plays Georges’ wife. The film’s best moment appears in the big reveal in the second half, one which is best left unspoiled here.
Hugo is magnificently entertaining and inspiring, and a strong reminder that watching great cinema can make you impervious to gloom and despair - it’s a perfect antidote for those seeking refuge from the lack of magic in real life.
(First published in Mid Day)