Genre: Family Fantasy/Adventure.
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace-Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron-Cohen, Jude Law, Emily Mortimer, Helen McCrory, Ray Winstone, Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour and Christopher Lee.
Running Time: 126 mins. Approx.
Certificate: U (Contains mild peril).
Seen At: Apollo Cinemas, Altrincham.
On: Sunday, 4th December, 2011.
Martin Scorsese is one of our very greatest filmmakers, providing audiences with movies whose titles alone conjure up iconic images, and have become enduring classics. One could call him a true ‘cinemagician’ a reference which is accentuated upon in his latest feature, based on the novel: The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick (whose Grandfather was the first cousin of well-known Hollywood producer David O. Selznick – fitting given the film’s subject matter in the second half).
It tells the story of Hugo, a young orphaned boy whose only home is a busy Parisian train station. His daily job is negotiating the perilous inter-workings of the station’s giant clocks, and his only means of survival resort to him stealing loaves of bread from the bustling markets.
He lives in fear of the sinister station master, until he meets an adventurous young girl Isabelle and her initially austere, disdainful and cantankerous grandfather Papa Georges, who runs a toy booth.
Before Hugo’s father (Jude Law – appearing only in flashback) died in ambiguous circumstances, he and his son began restoring a mysterious robotic figure known only as an Automaton, whose heart-shaped keyhole is wound-up by the key that belongs to Isabelle. Is it just coincidence that she should have the key Hugo’s been desperately searching for? Whatever the outcome, it’s up to the two children to literally ‘unlock’ the mystery of the deceptively innocuous Automaton. Rest assured, that once they get it working, it reveals an astonishing, magical secret that will change everyone’s life forever…
The premise may sound unusual, and that’s predominantly due to the fact that it is so refreshingly different and original. This film is an absolute joy to watch. Visually sumptuous, the wonderfully warm, cinematographically glossy tones are superbly enhanced by such subtle utilization of 3D, which serves its function of fully immersing its audience completely within the magic.
The opening shot on its own is a tour-de-force in stunning optical scale. A high-angle view of a slightly fantastical, glowing, snow-covered cityscape of Paris, tracks directly into the hustle-and-bustle of numerous shoppers, before stopping short of the gigantic clock-face inhabiting our protagonist.
The film is a real departure for Scorsese, known famously of course for often graphic, adult, pictures usually centred around gangsters. This is his first venture into family-friendly material – the festive glow and hopeful optimism that envelopes throughout is about as far removed from the gritty, crime-ridden streets of Taxi Driver, the sheer brutality of Raging Bull’s boxing ring or the pulpy, violent camaraderie of Goodfellas as you’re ever likely to go.
Yet never is it over-sentimentalised in a way that’s syrupy, sugary or patronising. Indeed, there are definite elements that dictate a darker undercurrent tonally, including the scenes where Hugo has a nightmare that he himself has turned into the Automaton, as well as a terrifically memorable sequence where a train goes off the tracks – again, made all the richer through the tool of 3D – thanks to Scorsese’s love for the new aspect of the medium.
As original as it is in its content, it’s also happily reminiscent of a particular quartet of films – capturing the adventure of Lemony Snicket, as well as the magical qualities of The Polar Express, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Harry Potter owing to the fact that they all share the scenario of a wondrous new world being seen through the wide-eyed perspective of children.
It turns out, that Isabelle’s stern grandfather is in fact the great auteur and pioneer of silent filmmaking Georges Melies, famous for the art of illusion, most notably in the short entitled A Trip To The Moon, (this is first shown in a revelatory way). As such, the second half of the film is a joyous celebration of the magic of cinema, delivered by Scorsese, one of the forms contemporary masters, that’s fascinating for lovers of cinema. As Melies reflects back on the pain of remembering the fate of his once glorious past, it becomes obvious that the earlier scene in which Melies instructs Hugo to fix a clockwork toy mouse, acts as an allegory, a touching metaphor of reversal for Hugo to fix Melies.
A recurring motif of clocks is definitely present (the fixing of the clockwork mouse, the clockwork, wind-up figure of the Automaton, the scene which sees Hugo balancing upon the giant hands of the clock-face in which he spends most of his life).
This is cleverly mirrored by the highly precise, almost clock-work nature of Scorsese’s method of filmmaking. Proceedings literally ‘run like clock-work’, with the running-time of just over two hours flying by, with the delicate intricacies of several different strands of narrative storytelling being tied up by an expert effortlessly.
The vast majority of performances are brilliant. Asa Butterfield is already one of our best young actors, and is effectively understated and emotive – really shining as Hugo. Sir Ben Kingsley is fantastic as Melies, particularly when his visage of contempt softens to reveal a kind, loving and empathetic genius.
The best performance comes from Helen McCrory as his wife Mama Jeanne, exceptional in her portrayal of an aging former silent-movie actress – the star of Georges’s films and the love of his life.
The film isn’t entirely flawless – Sacha Baron Cohen’s channelling of ‘Allo Allo’s Arthur Bostrom as the station master doesn’t work well at all. Nor really do the rather clichéd characters played by Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour as an older lady and gentlemen who keep running into each other at the station, smitten, but can never admit their true feelings.
But these small shortcomings do nothing to detract from what really is a magical, memorable and deeply moving cinematic experience. It deserves every success at the fast-approaching trio of Golden Globe, Bafta and Oscar award ceremonies. Its huge appeal is absolutely universal – it should be seen by everyone.
The most wonderful film – one of the year’s very best – I cannot recommend it highly enough!
Rating: * * * * *