Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Christopher Lee
Plot: In 1930s Paris, an orphan boy who lives in the walls of a train station, tries to find the story behind a robot and a former filmmaker.
Martin Scorsese might be most famous for directing iconic, violent films such as Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980) and Goodfellas (1990), but he has never been shy of trying something a little different every now and then. Aside from the occasional documentary, Scorsese was at the helm of Bringing Out the Dead (1999) and Shutter Island (2010), two films that showed he could try his hand at genres that aren’t his norm. Hugo goes one step further – this is essentially a film aimed at children, which is arguably more akin to asking Quentin Tarantino to direct the next Chipmunks Squeakquel.
In 1930s Paris, Hugo Cabret (Butterfield), lives with his widowed father (Jude Law), a clockmaker, who regularly takes his son to the cinema and particularly enjoys the films of Georges Méliès. One day, Hugo’s father dies in a museum fire and he is taken in by his uncle (Ray Winstone), an alcoholic watchmaker whose job is to monitor clock maintenance at the train station Gare Montparnasse. He shows Hugo his job, but is later found drowned in the Seine. Ever since then, Hugo has lived within the walls of the station, looking after the clocks, stealing food and trying to rebuild an automaton (a mechanical man), which is supposed to write with a pen. Believing that the automaton contains a message from his father, Hugo steals the mechanical parts needed to fix it, but is caught by the owner of the toy store, Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley) who takes his notebook which has all the notes and instructions for the repair.
In order to recover the notebook, Hugo befriends Papa’s god-daughter Isabelle (Moretz), who promises to help him. The next day, Georges gives Hugo a pile of ashes which he claims are the remains of the notebook – Isabelle, to Hugo’s relief, tells him that the notebook has not been burned. Georges decides that Hugo can earn the notebook back by working for him in his shop until he pays back everything that he stole. Hugo manages to fix the automaton, but is missing one vital component – a heart-shaped key that will bring it to life. He shows Isabelle the movies that he had grown to love and she introduces him to a bookstore whose owner Labisse (Lee) initially displays distrust towards Hugo. Isabelle turns out to have the key to the automaton and they activate it to finally see what happens. When it draws a famous scene from a Georges Méliès’ Voyage to the Moon (1902), Isabelle recognises the signature underneath as being her godfather’s. Hugo and Isabelle go ask Papa Georges for an explanation and learn a startling revelation about his past.
Hugo is proof that appearances can be deceptive. What starts out with a particular focus on two young protagonists, avoiding the attentions of their elders with the use of slapstick humour, eventually turns into something altogether magical. Asa Butterfield, who was launched into our cinematic consciousness with a fine performance as Bruno in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, is perfectly cast as the wide-eyed Hugo Cabret. There would be many other young actors who would have taken on this role and made it too mawkish, but Butterfield tackles both the comic and more serious scenes with aplomb. Moretz takes on a character that is in complete contrast to her incarnations of Mindy Mcready/Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass (2010) and Abby in Let Me In (2010) – her portrayal of Isabelle as Hugo’s companion in their journey together is conveyed very well indeed.
Now to the adults. This is Ben Kingsley’s best film for a good while. When we finally discover Papa Georges tragic secret, the plot takes an about turn and since the whole film depends on how this character is played, his casting in this role is an absolute masterstroke. We initially feel his antagonism towards Hugo and world, so there is little sympathy for him, but at the halfway mark, the whole mood of Hugo changes and this is in no small part down to Kingsley’s magnificent performance. There are small roles for Christopher Lee and Jude Law, who are not really given time to develop their characters, but Sacha Baron Cohen, who looks for all the world like Allo Allo’s English gendarme Arthur Bostrom, provides the main comic relief which generally sits well. Scorsese’s direction is exquisite – perhaps there was a feeling that he would be out of his depth here, but every scene is intricately poised and his love for cinema is clearly evident throughout.
After watching about half an hour of Hugo, you may think that only children are invited to the proceedings, but once Papa Georges story is revealed it is the adults, particularly those who love early cinema, who will be in awe at Scorsese’s latest offering. The first half may not be perfect, but once it gets going, the rest most certainly is.