In my opinion, this is one of the most beautiful films ever made, and also features the best use yet of 3D technology. Scorsese's new movie is a visual treat, with some unexpected narrative side streets. Although I'm not sure what kind of audience it will appeal to.
Brian Selznick's children's book, part half text, half illustration is the basis of the film, which Scorsese says he made so that he could have a movie he might show to his 12 year old daughter. It opens with a stunning shot which takes the viewer from high up in the night sky over Paris, and swoops down until we penetrate into the heart of the Gare Montparnasse railway station along a platform and up to where a boy is watching the world from behind a clock face. This is Hugo (Asa Butterfield), an orphan who now lives like Quasimodo among the mechanics of the clock of the stations, tending to them now that his booze-sodden uncle is floating in the Seine (aka sleeping with the fishes). He lives in fear of being apprehended by the fearsome station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his demonic rottweiler. And he tries to make an automaton, left with him by dead dad Jude Law, come back to life.
This is – obviously – an imaginary world, located in a fantasy version of the 1930s, where Django and his band play jazz at the station, and – if I'm not mistaken – James Joyce and Salvador Dali sit in a cafe, discussing the meaning of life. But the most important and least known person at the station is the old man with a toy concession (Ben Kingsley), who is bitter and resentful over some past grievance. However he has a goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), who is the same age as Hugo, and is eager for them to have adventures together. This involves finding what secrets the automaton holds, who the old man at the toy stall really is, and all about the Dawn of Cinema. For Papa Georges (Kinglsey's character) is one of the most significant people from the first couple of decades of film making, and if there is one man who is passionate about all film makers – and the older the better – it is Martin Scorsese, who was, after all, instrumental in the rediscovery of Michael Powell.
I won't tell you who Georges is, since, although you probably won't have heard of him, it's fun finding out the secret. Nonetheless, one question I have is, who the film's audience is likely to be. It's old fashioned in a charming Swallows & Amazons kind of way, with no real sense of modern narrative propulsion. These are two well behaved kids who like to read old books and go to the cinema, and don't do anything other the Right Thing at all times; it's only adults who misjudge their intentions. These are not modern kids, and so I wonder if modern day children will want to go and see them. To an older audience, the pace may be a little sedate, and don't expect to see any dangerous gangsters roaming the mean platforms. Ali G in a French uniform is as scary as its going to get.
This is in every sense of the word, a labour of love. Scorsese and his team have created a magical environment in which every detail coheres into a whole, and in which mechanics and clockwork are what make the world go round. Projectors, clocks and automata are the principal characters, which means that to some extent the human element is in itself a little mechanistic. But somehow, despite the slightly contrived plot, and the occasionally cardboard characters, it all holds together, culminating in a very moving climax where everything is all right on the night, and a few tears flowed. It's the most unexpected film that Scorsese could have made, and in its own way, completely wonderful.
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'Hugo' is on now at the Genesis Cinema in Whitechapel. For bookings and further listings check their site here.