While director Martin Scorsese rarely disappoints, he certainly can leave you feeling like you got half the movie you were expecting. That was my reaction with Shutter Island (2010), where the trailer turned out to be much better than the actual movie.
Happily, Scorsese overall has a terrific batting average, and Hugo finds him true to form, if not at peak form. Hugo is as good a movie as The Aviator, and may be better. It doesn’t have the star talent of our most marketable actors like Leonardo DiCaprio. A largely unknown child actor plays the title character Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield). I first encountered Butterfield in the quirky 2007 movie Son of Rambow.
Butterfield is not a mesmerizing child actor, but he is consistently very good and does manage to breathe plausibility into Hugo Cabret, an orphan who calls the rooms behind a Parisian train station his home. He carries on a family tradition of keeping the station’s many mechanical clocks in sync. Butterfield reminds me of a prepubescent Elijah Wood, in that he is small framed and is blessed with expressive eyes you cannot get enough of. Staged in a 1930s Paris, Scorsese delivers an impeccably realistic period Paris, whose only peculiarity is that while all the signs are in French, everyone speaks proper British English.
The train station itself is a character in this movie, on the surface just a busy hub full of constant streams of passengers in transit. Its heart rests in its many vendor stalls, which includes a curiosity shop run by a man known as Georges. His shop is full of mechanical toys. It is little wonder that Hugo is attracted to the store like a moth to the flame, since mechanical things fascinate him. What fascinates him the most is an automaton, a mechanical man meant to run using a complex system of connected gears and pulleys. He inherited the automaton from his father, who passes unexpectedly. When his surviving uncle also dies, Hugo finds himself an orphan. To avoid being sent to the orphanage, he must keep the clocks running in the station so everyone thinks his Uncle is still alive. It’s not a problem because both his father and his Uncle tutored him in the art of maintaining mechanical things. However, surviving means a lot of surreptitious stealing, not to mention rapidly ascending into the ironworks that make up the rafters and walls. From there he can maintain the many oversize timepieces commuters count on for accurate time. Surviving also means evading the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his very fast and aggressive dog.
Hugo’s passion is to make the automaton work again, in part because it was his father’s passion before his death. He is convinced that if the automaton can be made to work, it will reveal a secret message from his late father. Finding the right parts is an uphill challenge, which is partly why the mechanical things in Georges’ shop are such a draw to him. Caught stealing from him, the man takes a precious sketchbook from him, and seems intent on burning it. By destroying it he will also destroy the boys fondest hopes.
With no megastars, Scorsese substitutes a host of memorable character actors instead. Georges turns out to be Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), once a famous French silent movie director who chooses obscurity when World War One brings an abrupt end to his fantasy-filled short films. Méliès is not so much taking his anger out on Hugo as he is still traumatized by the abrupt end of his career — so traumatized that he wants to utter obscurity and to be forgotten for his prior triumphs. Méliès has a young daughter about Hugo’s age, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) that Hugo desperately befriends in the hope of getting his sketchbook back. They quickly turn into real friends. Hugo uses his skills as a locksmith to get her into movie theaters (where she is not allowed to venture). Isabelle in turn introduces Hugo to Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee), a kindly bookseller who loans Isabelle a constant stream of books from his bookshop at the station.
This is a movie that is hard to explain why it should work but so easy to enjoy because it is so rich in cast, set and great directing. Scorsese does such a wonderful job in making a 1930s Paris wholly convincing, except for all the British English. You are quickly sucked into Hugo’s life, his world behind the walls and in the rafters, his fascination with gears, and the memorable characters he encounters in the train station. It’s a movie that is not only convincing as a period in history, but which works as a multilayered study of interesting and overlapping characters. Sacha Baron Cohen channels a little Inspector Clouseau, but his bumbling is due most to a war injury that hobbles his patrols of the train station. And yet the movie is far more than character stories, for it also brings us into the world of the early 20th century, and the crazy silent films made by men like Méliès, which in turn gives us an appreciation for just how brilliant they were for their time. The connector, as you might suspect, is the automaton that somehow manages a magical mechanical feat once the heart shaped key is found that starts it working. Literally the past helps create the present and sets in motion a chain of small human events that is touching and so deftly realized on film through Scorsese’s careful directing.
Hugo in fact is an excellent movie, close to being a landmark film in itself, and fully worthy of the 3.5 (out of four stars) I am rating it. It’s still in theaters. Hurry and see it if you can.
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