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In Association with
Hugo (2011)
Director: Martin Scorsese

review by Jim Steel

It all begins with a train station. The Lumiere brothers' famous film of a train entering a station startled audiences in 1897, and there were (possibly apocryphal) reports of viewers panicking and fleeing. Martin Scorsese starts this CGI love letter to cinema with an audacious swooping shot that sweeps over a snowy Paris and down between the passengers in a massive Parisian railway station. It's stunning in 2D and must be a dizzying experience in 3D. Fortunately, flat mates, Scorsese is much too good a director to let the 3D technology lead him into cheap thrills, and the rest of the film can be enjoyed without fear of nausea.

Grubby urchin Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is sneaking around the innards of the station, occasionally popping out to nick stuff. His backstory is revealed to us over the course of the film and it goes something like this: after the death of Hugo's mother, his father (Jude Law) got a job repairing clocks in a museum where he stumbled across a mechanical man which he took home to try to repair. Unfortunately, he died in a fire, leaving Hugo to the care of his alcoholic uncle (Ray Winstone) who winds the clocks at the station, clocks obviously being the family line.

The Uncle sticks Hugo and his mechanical man in a dingy room above the station, shows him how to keep the clocks going, and clears off. Since the Uncle continues to collect his wages, poor Hugo has to steal food to survive. Hugo's nemesis is the station policeman (Sacha Baron Cohen, channelling the policeman from 'Allo 'Allo!). Hugo also occasionally steals clockwork toys from the bitter toyshop owner (Ben Kingsley; reunited at long last with Sexy Beast co-star Winstone. You've got to love this film's cast. Christopher Lee's in this, too. Want to work with Scorsese? You bet.)

Hugo wants the toys to cannibalise for parts for the mechanical man. It's his last connection with his dad, you see. Grumpy old Ben confiscates Jude Law's notebook and Hugo has to team up with Kingsley's ward, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz from Kick-Ass in a more refined mood), to get it back. Hugo and Isabelle strike up an unlikely friendship. She's a bookworm and he sneaks her into a cinema to see her first-ever movie - Harold Lloyd's Safety Last! (1923), as it happens. They also unlock the secret of the toyshop owner. It turns out that he's cinema visionary Georges Méliès.

If you unpick the stuff about the station orphan you'll find a very serviceable drama-documentary about one of the most important figures who ever worked in film; offhand, it is hard to think of a single person of greater significance. Today everyone knows him for A Trip To The Moon but that can be regarded merely as an example and not an outlier of his talent. A remarkably large number of his films have survived and I urge you to explore them. Méliès himself was an accomplished stage conjurer who stumbled across the Lumiere brothers at the end of the 19th century, and was instantly ensnared by the magic of film.

At the time, the Lumieres were showing such films as the aforementioned 'Train Entering A Station' and the ever-popular 'Workers Leaving The Factory'. They thought they had no need of Méliès and rebuffed him. He was hooked, though, and went on to build his own studio, creating hundreds of fantastical films before the First World War destroyed the public taste for his whimsy (or so the film goes - in truth he appears to have fallen into a creative rut several years before the outbreak of the war). The flashback to Méliès' pre-war film years is one of the highlights and what could have turned into a dry lecture reveals itself as an uplifting and fascinating look at the creation of some of his hand-tinted masterpieces. His purpose-built glass studio is a wonderland that stands in deep contrast to the everyday bustle of Montparnasse Station. But the station is packed with its own dramas and other delightful little touches. Is that a very young Django Reinhardt playing in a café? Quick - try and count his fingers!

There are shades from the outside that can't help but colour this late 1920s world. The policeman, for example, is revealed to have suffered greatly during the war, as have others, and this adds a layer of compassion to their portrayal; there are no villains here. But we know that the shadow of the next war lies on these people and it casts a melancholic gloom over them all. And Méliès' own story wasn't tidied up quite as neatly as it is here, but that's a forgivable sacrifice to the gods of narrative. This film is not intended as an essay in realism.

Hugo may often feel that it is trying too hard but it is a constant source of fascination for the audience (and that includes kids, if my nine-year-old test audience is typical). Scorsese has delivered a wonderful film that is packed with warmth and humour, but it will be interesting to see how the CGI holds up in, say, a decade from now, Hugo may end up looking clunky and dated, or it might reveal itself to have the period charm of one of Méliès' own creations. Time will show it for what it really is. When viewed today, though, it approaches us as a near-perfect cinematic vision.


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