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* A film only review *
With relations between France and the UK currently frostier than the air outside, who knew an Italian American director best known for working in New York would achieve such a harmonious relationship on film?
If someone had told me a while back that Scorsese was due to direct a film in 3D I might have assumed that it would feature Bobby De Niro (who wouldn't pay extra to see his bulbous nose jumping out of the screen?) and a gritty, New York storyline. Not so.
~ Two tales of one city ~
Georges Melies was one of cinema's pioneers in late 19 century Paris. Firstly a puppeteer, he realised the possibilities moving pictures may have when he was invited to a screening of one of the Lumiere Brothers short films. Hugo is a film about what might have been. It takes what is widely known about Melies and constructs a story around him. In real life after having made over 500 films, public interest waned and he became bankrupt with his beloved theatre soon demolished. He spent most of his later years living in France in relatively obscurity. The final ignominy was that most of his films were later melted down with little now left of his work.
The film presents a far more romantic version in that the his theatre was tragically burnt down during the First World War leaving Melies passion for film turning into bitterness. Perhaps like Scrooge, will he realise the error of his ways before it's too late?
Instead of Dickens's three ghosts, we have the titular character. Hugo Cabret has been left in the care of an alcoholic uncle after the death of his father. They live inside the walls of a Parisian train station with the uncle earning his living by maintaining the stations' clocks. Subsequently abandoned by his uncle, Hugo carries on tending the clocks and stealing whatever food he can from the stations vendors. His overriding passion is to fix an antiquated clockwork man his father had discovered shortly before his death. This passion results in Hugo crossing paths with Melies which is not a happy event, at least to start with.
~ Celebrating infancy ~
This is in a totally different field to Scorsese previous works, although it's clear after watching this that early cinematography and more importantly its preservation is a subject which he feels passionately about. Throughout, there are not only countless shots of Melies surviving work Voyage to the Moon but also of the earlier Lumiere brothers short film Arrival of a train at a Station. Less than a minute long, it's hard to imagine a time where so few people had seen moving pictures before that the audience ran, thinking that the steam train was indeed going to come through the screen and hit them.
Perhaps in part Scorsese has a childlike fascination with choo choos because they feature heavily. Not only does he show the Lumiere footage, but also his take on it: a train out of control and about to hit Hugo. This was superb to watch in 3D although I can't say I was as scared as the Lumiere's audience were made out to be over 100 years earlier.
All the early footage should surely make for bored children though, as this is intended to be family entertainment. I don't think so, firstly thanks to young Asa Butterfield who plays Hugo. Having played the title role in The boy who wears striped pyjamas a few years back, he's already got a steady line of work behind him and having watched this it's easy to see why. Here's a character who is having to live on his wits. If he fails and gets caught by the station master, he'll be packed off to a brutal orphanage. Butterfield manages to play him without becoming mawkish, and when we find out his obsessive desire to mend the automaton is because he believes it provides a spiritual link with his dead dad, it generated just the right amount of pathos without making me cringe.
~ 3D or not 3D ~
If I've come away learning anything more about Scorsese it is that he's a bit of a magpie. If you wanted to use bang up to date 3D technology what better subject material than showcasing some vintage silent movies. It isn't just Melies and the Lumiere Brothers that feature, but also a clip of Harold Lloyd dangling from a clock tower taken from the film Safety Last. Scorsese then finds a way to incorporate Hugo dangling from a station clock in exactly the same manner. Slick, well done and far more imaginative than a storyline featuring dinosaurs or animated creatures. Scorsese has delivered a film which was a joy to watch in 3D.
From the opening shots of a 1930s Paris wonderland where the snowflakes are fluttering down, the 3D technology adds a warmth to the film I don't think I've seen before. Hand in hand with the cinematography, there were points in the film where it was so realistic I almost felt dizzy, with the camera suddenly swooping down onto a crowded platform from up on high, or where we're peering down a very long stairwell almost about to fall. I think that most of the recent 3D films have been purely a money making gimmick, but with Hugo it adds an intensity to it which I'm glad I've seen because I think a 'normal' viewing would lack that. There are also some comedy moments made visually better for being in 3D, notably concerning the station master, played by Sacha Baron Cohen.
The blu ray disc when it's released won't be a patch on watching this in 3D, but it's bound to be so much better than a regular dvd I would certainly recommend it.
~ The characters and screenplay ~
Set mainly in a train station it's fair to assume that there will be a large cast involved, and so there is. One problem with the screenplay is that many of the smaller roles seem so fleeting as to be irrelevant. Hugo's dad for one. Why Jude Law was attracted to this blink and you'll miss it role I've no idea. Hugo's uncle, played by Ray Winstone, also features only once as I recall. Unless it was the intention to make this a modern take on Oliver Twist his role as a Fagin character seems pointless. In that case we have an orphan who has to pickpocket to get by, Fagin, and the threat of an orphanage but not much more. I'm not sure younger audiences would appreciate the connections even if they were easy to spot.
I had been looking forward to seeing Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffith on screen together but both of their roles as regulars at the station seemed pointless and wasted screen time. Having enjoyed The History Boys I found this disappointing. The role of Lisette played by Emily Mortimer is also minimal and aside from the potential flame flickering between her and the Station Inspector, it serves no real purpose.
Ironically, considering clocks and time feature so heavily the film at 2 hours 6 minutes was too long and dragged in a few parts. Introducing unnecessary characters didn't help, but in other respects the storyline doesn't follow through. We're shown in flashback how Hugo's dad dies, with the suggestion that it involved foul play although this is then forgotten almost as soon as we've seen it and the audience is left none the wiser, making Law's role all the more pointless. I must admit on seeing Christopher Lee's first few seconds in this where he is introduced to Hugo I thought he had something to do with the death of Monsieur Cabret, but this lead to a dead end. I can only assume Lee, as well as the other's I've mentioned were attracted purely by the opportunity of working with Scorsese and not their individual roles because frankly it wasted the time of that particular screen legend.
It's not all bad though. One character who was given the right amount of screen time was Hugo's nemesis, the station master. Left with a leg crippled in the First World War, his noisy metal leg brace creaks as he patrols the station with an overzealous vigilance and a mean looking Doberman. Sacha Baron Cohen in the role sounded much like Ali G with the physical gags of Basil Fawlty. Don't let this put you off though. As much as the character is unlikeable - to start with - most of the film's comedy comes from Cohen. From the visual gags such as when the camera pans out to reveal him sharing a bath with his Doberman to the verbal musings with a friend about the fidelity of the mate's wife, it's all good fun. It just begs the one question. If dogs look like their owners, or owners look like their dogs, who was cast first? The Doberman or Cohen, because there's an uncanny resemblance which is not lost on Scorsese.
As much as I enjoyed the film, the screenplay dwells too long on aspects of little importance. Hugo's attempts to get the clockwork man working take up too much screen time for a start. It's little more than a device to introduce him to Melies and tie in Scorsese' message about preserving early cinematography to the present (well, 1930s) day. Children might disagree though as Butterfield is a real delight to watch.
The same can't be said of the other child actor in this, Isabelle. Sadly I came away thinking Chloe Grace Moretz who played her was badly cast, with every screenshot featuring exuberant and over the top facial expressions. When Butterfield and Moretz shared the screen the more subtle Butterfield stole it every time. Her introduction into Hugo's world seemed mainly to keep younger audiences engaged than serving any real purpose. Of course this is a family film, so perhaps I'm being too harsh.
The other main protagonist is of course Georges Melies, played by Ben Kingsley. I had no idea what the real Melies looked like, but some online photos show a remarkable physical resemblance between the two men. While Hugo has a deep love of films thanks to fond memories of watching them with his dad, Melies is like an embittered ex lover who now hates them. Portrayed as abrupt and deeply hurt by the failure of his theatre and the lack of interest in his film work, he returns to his first love of puppetry and clockwork toys and resorts to selling his wares in a station kiosk to make ends meet. What becomes of him? You shall have to watch to find out.
This is a well made, feel good film which reminds me slightly of Chocolat and Amelie. Certainly it could have done with being slightly shorter, but that aside, it's a lovely film and perfect for the Christmas season. But please if you get a chance, watch it in 3D.
"The movies are our special place" ~ Hugo Cabret talking of his father to Isabelle.
"Remember to smile" ~ Lisette.
"Don't worry, I have mastered three!" ~ Station Inspector.