Thursday, December 1, 2011
Martin Scorsese’s latest film and his first children’s movie, Hugo starts with a tracking shot even longer and more thrilling than the one at the start of Goodfellas. After swooping down from the sky, though the streets of 1930s Paris, and into a train station, the camera slows down to introduce us to the station where almost all the action will take place. It ends with a closeup of Hugo (Asa Butterfield), an orphan who lives in a hidden room above the ceiling, as he peers out at the passing pageant.
Hugo’s child’s-eye view exaggerates and simplifies the world of the station, but Scorsese and his team bring it to richly detailed life. Whole subcultures (like the cozy bistro’s blasé musicians) and subplots (like the budding romance between Richard Griffiths’ sweetly awkward middle-aged man and his kindly crush, played by Frances de la Tour) are sketched in just a few strokes.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the children’s book (by Brian Selznick) from which it was adapted (by John Logan) alternates between words and a series of cinematically kinetic drawings. The film’s version of that interplay is long stretches of wordless action, like that fluid opener, that play almost like one of the silent films that are the real subject of this great filmmaker’s love letter to his medium.
The plot is driven by Hugo’s quest to avoid arrest by the comically scary stationmaster (Sacha Baron Cohen) while trying to unlock the mystery of an automaton he inherited from his father. His search uncovers an unexpected secret: the perpetually disgruntled merchant (Ben Kingsley) who is one of his main nemeses at the station turns out to be silent film pioneer Georges Méliès.
The slow, connoisseur-at-the-museum pace of this glowing jewel box of a movie feels sluggish when we’re just following the kids, Hugo and Isabel (Chloë Grace Moretz), an adventure-hungry girl who befriends him and helps him solve the mystery of the automaton. Butterfield’s big eyes and knobby knees do much of his work for him, establishing Hugo’s Dickensian youth and vulnerability, but they don’t give us much sense of Hugo’s inner life, and Moretz, whose performances in Kick-Ass and Let the Right One In were so nuanced and eerily self-assured, feels stiff and self-conscious here. Maybe she’s just not comfortable playing a perky/plucky type, or maybe Scorsese isn’t great at directing young actors. (Jodie Foster was phenomenal in Taxi Driver, but she credits that to Robert de Niro, who spent hours with her before shooting, reading lines with her and helping her develop her character.)
But if the kids can be a little wooden and the dialogue painfully literal-minded (“Happy endings only happen in the movies,” says Méliès), the imagery is pure poetry. As he does in his film preservation work, Scorsese approaches his subject with the passionate engagement of a fellow filmmaker, excited to be sharing something he loves. Within the setting of Hugo’s exaggerated acting styles and the heightened realism of its sets and costumes, playful excerpts from Méliès movies shimmer and shine. As Hugo shows in loving detail, Méliès was a magician before becoming a filmmaker. Scorsese connects with the magic he found in celluloid, which allowed him to create joyfully unfettered fantasies—a process we see reenacted in faithful recreations of the scene inside his glass-walled studio.
The strategic tidbits of film history that Hugo and Isabel encounter in the course of their search are also animated in lovely sequences, like the classic bits by the likes of Buster Keaton, Louise Brooks, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. that fill the screen as the two read a book on film history.
Hugo finds almost as much mystery and magic in the mechanics of the process as in the end result. One of the most beautiful things in this achingly beautiful film is Hugo’s automaton, a metallic man with a soulfully sad expression and intricately interlocking gears that direct it to do miraculous things, and even the hand-cranked projector used to show one of Méliès’ films gets a long, loving closeup.
The rich sepia tone of the brown-dominated palette evokes the look of an early black-and-white film, but this is no slavish recreation. Instead, the filmmakers extend their subject’s sensibilities into the present, playing with the new possibilities offered by new technologies the way he presumably would have. Digitalized backdrops heighten the sense of romance we associate with Paris, and while the 3-D is sometimes used subtly, creating magical effects like falling snow and dancing dust motes, it’s also exaggerated for dramatic or (mostly) comic effect in the spirit of Méliès. Sometimes it’s both comic and dramatic, as when the stationmaster and his high-strung Doberman pinscher pursue Hugo, their long, skinny faces telescoping far into the theater.
But there’s just as much suspense when Hugo climbs out his window and onto a high ledge to escape his pursuers. That bit may be as old as the clock scene Hugo includes from Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last, but done by a master like Scorsese, it can still take your breath away.
Written for TimeOff