"If you've ever wondered where your dreams come from, look around... this is where they're made."
Martin Scorsese is an icon, a living legend, and, I'll go ahead and say it, the greatest director of his generation, a generation that produced a ton of great directors, but only one true master of the cinema. His early life was spent as a sick child, indoors, watching films while his friends spent their lives playing outdoors, and we, the movie-going public, have reaped the benefits of his time spent absorbing cinema.
No other director of his ilk can move so seamlessly not just between genres, but between fiction and documentary filmmaking. If you can name another director that can do this, I'd like to hear about it. Werner Herzog maybe, but it's an amazing talent that very few have attempted, let alone mastered. In his documentaries, most notably My Voyage to Italy and A Personal Journey... he has been able to parlay his love of film as a medium into an enjoyable narrative, but he's never attempted to construct a true love letter to film in the confines of fiction.
Hugo is his first attempt to do so, and it is a resounding success. It's the kind of film that only a true cinephile could have made. Using Brian Selznick's novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret as a jumping off point, Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan tell the story of Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield, a true natural on-screen), a young boy orphaned by the death of his father (Jude Law) and forced to live in a early 20th Century Parisian train station by his uncle (Ray Winstone), a drunk who takes care of the clocks in the station.
He scours around the walls of the station every day, trying to avoid the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), and stealing spare parts from a toy store run by a stern old man named Georges (Ben Kingsley), in an attempt to fix an automaton robot left to him by his father. After befriending Georges' god-daughter Isabelle (Chloe Moretz, fast becoming one of the best young actresses in film today), he notices a key she wears around her neck, that is shaped like the keyhole on the back of the automaton. While it's important for the film's magic to keep the hows and whys a secret in a review, the automaton was created by Georges, who is actually silent filmmaker Georges Melies, director of such films as A Trip to the Moon. He has fallen into a deep depression, thinking that his work had been lost and forgotten, but with the help of film historian Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg, from the Coen Brothers' underrated A Serious Man), Hugo and Isabelle set out to prove to Melies that he hasn't been forgotten.
Okay, first of all, any film where the protagonists turn to a film historian for help is gonna get high marks from me, but the film is so much more than that. The flashbacks to Melies creating his films are the stuff of pure cinema magic, and give the film a lived-in luxuriousness that a lesser director would have skirted over. This also brings me to the use of 3D. It is absolutely, positively the best use of the technology yet put on film, and I feel it's essential to see the film this way if at all possible. It almost makes me want to buy a 3D television so I never have to see the film in 2D. The depth of field he achieves, particularly in the breathtaking opening shot that breezes in and out of the walls of the train station, is nothing short of miraculous. It makes filmgoing an immersive experience. You feel like you're there in the train station with them. It's amazing.
The parallels between Hugo and Georges are powerful, and give the film it's true emotional punch. Georges sees in Hugo a boy that should, by all rights, have given up on humanity and turned hard-hearted and cynical like him, but Hugo's firm belief in the human condition and its power to move people permeates Georges, and makes him remember what it was like to be that way. His friendship with Isabelle is definitely his gateway to human connection again, but it's through his faith in Georges, when seemingly no one else has it, that gives Georges the will to regain his status as a cinema master.
It's a beautiful film, and one that made me glad to say that I took my daughter to see her first Scorsese movie. The special effects are incredible. The way the camera glides through the train station and 1930s Paris gives the film a truly magical aura, and allows you to get lost in a world we'll never see again in real life. Howard Shore's score is equally magical, never feeling overbearing like John Williams at his worst. It gives even the most mundane shots, of which there are very few, an air of whimsy that allows you to be transported right along with the images.
The performances are also fantastic, across the board. Both young actors are wonderful, and Ben Kingsley manages to return to greatness again, after spending the last decade since Sexy Beast meandering in dreck like Bloodrayne and The Love Guru. Everyone needs a paycheck, but even that's no excuse for the kind of slumming he's been doing. Sacha Baron Cohen also proves that he's a good actor that can hold his own on screen when he's not endlessly winking at the audience. Helen McCrory is also very good as Melies' wife, and Christopher Lee is always a welcome sight.
Martin Scorsese reminds us why we go to the movies in the first place with Hugo. He has made better movies, but I don't think he's ever been this romantic a filmmaker before. Even Age of Innocence has a cold detachment to it, despite its lush interiors and costumes. This is Scorsese in full-on film lover mode, and it's a wonder to behold. Even the most cold hearted cynic will find that facade melting away throughout the second hour of this film, and my biggest disappointment with this film is that it never found the audience it deserved. It kind of got buried by the deluge of family films all released around the same time at the end of last year, and it has struggled to connect with a wide audience. Oh well, it's their loss, and yours if you don't see Hugo.