In recent years, Martin Scorcese has been known primarily for two things. The first is for maintaining his status as the legendary filmmaker behind classic films like Raging Bull and Goodfellas by continuing to produce quality work with recent films like The Departed and Gangs of New York. The second is for being an outspoken film restoration enthusiast, appearing at many a film festival to lecture on the responsibility that people in and out of the industry have to ensure the immortality of classic films. Scorcese gets to be both a filmmaker and a film enthusiast for his latest film Hugo, a personal love letter to the past, present, and future of his cherished art form.
Scorcese and longtime editing partner Thelma Schoomaker splice together stock from the earliest days of cinema including footage from films by D.W. Griffith, Edwin S. Porter, the Lumière Brothers, Robert Wiene, and most prominently Georges Méliès. The unintended effect is that this brings to the audience’s attention how much better those early films were. With no point of reference but their imagination, early filmmakers were able to transcend their technical limitations to create films that were truly magic. Despite possessing some of the most impressive 3-D of the year, Hugo ultimately fails to create its own magic and works better as a history lesson than an escapist work of cinema.
Devoid of wonder the film is not, however, as a fantastic opening shot takes us into the 1920s Paris setting of Hugo. The camera descends on a train station and in one take we pass digitally created, but realistic looking commuters decked out in Sandy Powell’s fantastic period costumes. We continue through dazzling sets, both real and CGI, designed by Dante Ferretti, and into the walls of the train station where we meet Hugo (Asa Butterfield), an orphan who was trained by his late uncle (Ray Winstone) to wind the clocks at the station. Hugo observes the world around him through the faces of the clocks he services and through his point of view we meet a miserly toy shop clerk named Georges (Ben Kingsley), an eccentric station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), an elderly couple in unrequited love (Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour), and an attractive flower shop clerk (Emily Mortimer). The early moments of the film contain almost no dialogue and momentarily allow the viewer to be lost in this picturesque Parisian world.
Hugo spends much of his time dedicated to completing a mysterious automaton that his father (Jude Law) came to own before his death. When he befriends Georges’ niece Isabel (Chloe Moretz), Hugo believes she has the key (literally) to get the automaton working and find the message that is hidden inside. They learn that the machine is programmed to draw, and the mysterious image it produces (immediately recognizable to anyone who has taken a film class) sends them on a journey to discover Georges’ (guess what his last name is?) connection to cinema history.
The film is most successful when we are treated to a master filmmaker approaching all-new material. Not only is this the only Martin Scorcese movie to which you can safely bring your children, but it also relies much less heavily on dialogue than in Scorcese’s previous work. The opening and closing scenes so heavily exemplify pure visual storytelling that it will delight audiences of all ages, specifically life long fans of film. There is a self-referential aspect in the opening tracking shot that recalls the fantastic Copa Cabana sequence in Goodfellas. Scorcese playfully weaves us through a digitally created, 3-D environment using current technology to showcase the past. Just like the experimental filmmaking of the early 1900s, much of the technology that Scorcese is using looks unpolished. Some of the sets are obviously CGI and the 3-D gets blurry when the camera pans too quickly, but for the most part Scorcese justifies his use of the controversial medium.
It would have been a better film had dialogue been altogether unnecessary and instead of a narrative we could be treated to a series of connected vignettes. However, this is a book adaptation after all, and a story must be told. The narrative seems like an afterthought, which results in some 2nd act stumbling as many characters go underdeveloped and the main story arc featuring Hugo’s attempt to find meaning feels muddled and aimless. Despite the occasional inconveniences that Sacha Baron Cohen’s inspector character causes Hugo, there is no real antagonist. This leads to a climactic chase scene that works on a visual level, but has no stakes.
The film consciously references silent films, especially with the unfolding of minor character relationships. Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour barely speak to one another, but we see their relationship unfold with visual cues. Unfortunately their scenes lacked the creative blocking that we see in great silent films, and are rendered nonessential. Another great missed opportunity is in the budding relationship between Sacha Baron Cohen’s inspector and Emily Mortimer’s flower seller. At first what appears to be an expressionistic courting scene between two nervous parties ala Chaplin’s Little Tramp becomes a simple dialogue exchange that was mildly funny, but tonally out of place. Take away the sets, costumes, and 3-D and it is as generic as any scene from a modern romantic comedy.
Chloe Moretz and Asa Butterfield carry most of the screen time well enough, but the real acting standouts come from the veteran actors, particularly Ben Kingsley. Kingsley’s performance as an old man who believes he is forgotten by the industry he once knew so well is deeply human and tragic. With a fantastic arc he shows that it is not disenfranchisement that removed him from his beloved art form, but fear and uncertainty.
Bottom Line: Martin Scorcese’s love letter to cinema is visually dazzling, but ultimately fails to create its own magic and works better as a history lesson than an escapist work of cinema.