I had given up hope that Martin Scorsese would ever make a picture aimed at all ages. With his love of film and unsurpassed knowledge of the art form, I felt he was a natural. But with New York as your muse, there are more serious matters to attend to. Turns out, Scorsese was hit by the perfect storm. His memories of early 3D films (Dial M for Murder, Kiss Me Kate), a beautifully crafted Caldecott medal winning children’s book (The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick) with a compelling story, and of course, the birth of cinema. Marty never had a chance.
Picture opens with two sounds; a steam train and the confident clicking movements of hundreds of timepieces. Suddenly we are whisked into a massive 1930’s Parisian train station bustling with activity. Scorsese’s 3D camera is in flight and traverses the entire station. In a few moments we see everything that’s happening. Then we see the face of a very serious boy peering out onto the grand station lobby from behind a large clock. This is Hugo Cabret, a 12 year old who lives in hidden apartments within the station walls and tends the clocks. Hugo, Asa Butterfield, is intense and not very pleasant. He steals food from the station cafe and small mechanical parts from a toy shop run by a sour old man.
Hugo needs the parts to fix an automaton that sits sad and lonely at a small desk, waiting to write a clue to Hugo’s existence. His father, Jude Law–who we see in flashback–was hypnotized by clockworks and split his time between working on them and his job in a Paris museum. He and his son collaborated to restore the automaton when a flash fire at the museum took his life. Hugo is immediately taken in by his oft inebriated Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone) who is employed by the train station to mind the clocks. He teaches Hugo to keep them lubricated and in good working order, and gives him a small bed in the apartment. But that’s all he gives him.
The unpleasant man at the station’s Toy shop is George Méliès, played with power and wide emotional range by Ben Kingsley. He catches Hugo stealing from him and is brutal in his treatment. He takes his detailed notebook containing the schematic of the automaton, which he recognizes. The encounter leads Hugo to meet Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), a bright, bookworm young girl who has also lost her parents, and now resides with Méliès and his wife Mama Jeanne (Helen McCrory) in a small Paris apartment.
Lost parents, being an orphan, and all that goes with it plays a major role in this picture. Some of the best children’s stories begin with parents being immediately dispatched in the first paragraph. They are lost at sea or in a tragic car accident, releasing their children from authority figures and freeing them to seek adventure without fear of being disciplined. I saw this film with my 7 year old son who grilled me at length about orphans and orphanages over dinner following the viewing. It further reinforced how the absence of parents sends children adrift.
Hugo talks about his dreams and his father and how they attended the movies. Isabelle has never seen a film, so he takes her but, they enter through the back door with the help of Hugo’s lock picking skills. She is enthralled with Harold Lloyd hanging from the hands of a clock in “Safety Last.” But there’s much more going on here than a simple adventure. Hugo is desperate to find meaning to his life and he believes Méliès and Isabelle can help unlock the mystery of the automaton to learn the answer.
Méliès is not the only player complicating Hugo’s life. The Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) is in charge of discipline and he doesn’t take his duty lightly. He has made it his mission to round up all parentless children he comes across and ship them off to the orphanage. He spars with Hugo on and off in the picture and is careful to instill in him the real purpose of a train station. “People are here to get on trains and get off trains and there are shops.” He was wounded in the war and wears a crude metal brace on his left leg. When it comes to chasing children he gets around just fine, but the brace mechanism locks up whenever his human side emerges. Cohen is quite good, has the best costume, and along with his Doberman companion, Maximilian, provides welcome comic relief to an otherwise emotionally draining story.
Hugo and Isabelle become closer. She sees him as someone who can provide her with adventure, and in return gives Hugo access to society and culture. He is drawn to Isabelle as someone who might be able to help him find his past. Despite diligent work on the automaton he is unable to make it work without a heart shaped key that initiates the crude program. Isabelle wants Hugo to take her behind the walls of the station, something that he is uncomfortable doing and turns to run. Isabelle is nearly trampled by departing train goers and when Hugo returns to save her he sees the heart shaped key around her neck. She gives him the key and he clicks it into place in the automaton’s back.
The machine draws a familiar picture that sets the two of them off on a quest to research the early days of the cinema. While in the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève they discover that Isabelle lives with the real George Méliès. The film curator at the library is a Méliès fan and has the only surviving Méliès film. They invite him to Isabelle’s apartment to screen the picture. There Méliès tells the entire story. His early magic show gave way to cinema when he met the Lumière Brothers at a local carnival. He was forever hooked and made hundreds of films. But the war changed everything, his work became irrelevant and it was systematically destroyed. Méliès was forever crushed.
All the characters have been pointing themselves to the film’s climax. A young boy’s courage and determination to solve the mystery of his own life, impacts so many others at the same time. What Selznick and Scorsese have done so wonderfully here is show the inter-connectedness of life. Nothing exists in a vacuum. All things are intertwined in a complex tapestry. Without it we are miserable. Embracing it is the nourishment of happiness.
The film evoked Cinema Paradiso for me. Another deeply passionate story of film and relationships. Scorsese’s treatment of Hugo advances our love of film and embeds it deeply into our heads and hearts, forever.
The production values in Hugo are top notch. I was anxious to see how Scorsese would employ 3D. He uses it a lot. Robert Richardson’s 3D lens moves flawlessly through the sets. Dante Ferretti created the train station and reproduced Méliès’ original film sets, providing the visual grammar for the film. The team spent five days filming on reproductions of Méliès sets, including building a glass studio complete with dragon and fish tank. And then there is of course Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing, which converges seamlessly with Scorsese’s vision. Howard Shore’s thematic score supports the emotional arch of the story, traversing mystery, boldness, playfulness, and finally optimism. Music is used liberally throughout the picture.
Was that Johnny Depp on guitar in the cafe in the chase scene? I think it might have been. I was interested that many of the clocks in the film used Arabic numerals. Train station clocks that use Roman numerals don’t use IV because it is right next to the V on the clock face. Commuters hurrying to catch their train glance up at the clock and might confuse IV from V, so clock makers changed IV to IIII to avoid the problem. I loved how most of the actors spoke with a British accent while living in Paris. Visit the official Hugo web site here.