tue 04/08/2020

Hugo | reviews, news & interviews



Scorsese does a Spielberg in sumptuous look at the origins of cinema

Chloë Grace Moretz and Asa Butterfield are up against the clock, often literally, in Scorsese latest

It's tempting to say that Martin Scorsese's first so-called "family film" works like clockwork, except that the movie possesses considerably more soul than that statement suggests. What's more, it would help to be a clan of thoroughgoing cinéastes to tap entirely into its charms, as a director steeped in the history of his chosen medium takes us backwards in time towards the very origins of the art form he so reveres. Kids may love the sweep and scope of the visuals, many of them involving timepieces that whir and tick and hum, but Hugo at heart is an extended act of homage toward the miracle that is celluloid itself. Those on Scorsese's palpably appreciative wavelength are sure to return his affection in kind.

For much of its first hour or so, some may wonder whether this is a Scorsese film at all, given the absence of the raw aggression and rage that have marked out so many of his best films. As the camera of the great cinematographer Robert Richardson swoops around and about a Parisian railway station some 70 years ago, an extravagant landscape emerges packed with mechanised instruments, gears and watch faces of all shapes and sizes. The human element includes Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour as putative lovers along with a maniacal station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen, pictured below with the film's two young leads) whose black Doberman keeps shooting out of the screen toward us as befits a film shot, rapturously, in 3D: all more Spielberg, surely, than Scorsese?

Sacha Baron Cohen bears down on Hugo's two young leadsThere's a whiff of Spielberg, too, in the presence of an orphaned boy driving the narrative, and not only because Hugo star Asa Butterfield at times looks disconcertingly like the hero, Tintin, at the heart of that other 3D venture of late (well, minus the quiff). With the height and breadth of the Gare Montparnasse as his playground, Butterfield's shining-eyed Hugo sets about on a mission to put right a broken automaton that was a favourite object of the boy's late father - that role played in a notably warm cameo by Jude Law, who brings real feeling to scant amounts of screen time.

Hugo's quest involves locating the key to a heart-shaped lock, a task that leads him to a bookish girl called Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz, giving the only stiff performance of the film) who uses Cyrano-ish words like "panache" and has a crank of a guardian (Ben Kingsley), a toy store proprietor whose apparent identity gives no sense of his one-time renown. At snarling odds with humankind (and, we discover, with his own past), Isabelle's Pappa Georges needs nothing more than to have his own heart reopened, which Hugo and Isabelle are eventually able to do. Who, in fact, is this ageing scold? No less a legendary figure than Georges Méliès, the celluloid visionary (1861-1938) without whose genius such devoted practitioners and scholars of the form as Scorsese would have had no career.

It's at this point that Hugo goes its own singular way, Scorsese increasingly limiting the comic freneticism of an eyebrow-heavy Baron Cohen in hot pursuit of his pre-teen prey so as to give time to an extended history lesson about the movies, complete with a recreation of the Lumière brothers' 1897 Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat that is seen to inform both Hugo's sleeping and waking selves. Effecting his own rehabilitation of the life and work of Méliès, the latter now largely lost to us, Scorsese moves beyond the academicism embodied on screen by Broadway actor Michael Stuhlbarg's professorial Tabard to proffer a story of rebirth and renewal that works on multiple levels. Even better, the emotions are informed at every turn by visuals that suggest a dizzying hybrid of Harold Lloyd (whose silent 1923 classic Safety Last is specifically referenced), Chaplin's Modern Times and the Sophie Treadwell play Machinal.

Butterfield (right) looks up at his late father's broken automatonThe scenes devoted to Méliès's artistry further the screenwriter John Logan's interest in the artistic process as evidenced previously in his London and Broadway hit play, Red, while at the same time reminding us of Scorsese's championing over time of the work of Pressburger and Powell and of his crusading work as a film preservationist - which is to say that Hugo ricochets well beyond the parameters of its narrative, as one might expect from the talents involved. The automaton (pictured above, as Butterfield looks up in awe) is a red herring given a venture that is deeply humane.

You could argue that the film sometimes gets a bit gushy ("come and dream with me" goes an exhortation revisited in varying soundbites during the last reel or two), rather in the manner of those sonorous voiceovers we hear at places like the Oscars, at which point the tuxedoed assemblage turns all dewy-eyed. But there's nothing remotely faux about a movie that eats, sleeps and breathes the cinema and invites viewers to do the same. How will such passions square with a filmgoing community today that is more acclimatised to the likes of (God forbid) rival 3D entry Immortals? Well, Scorsese was eight when he saw The Red Shoes, and look what happened there. Or, to co-opt the language of Hugo, when it comes to this film's possible imprint upon its audience, one can only dream.



Robert De Niro in Taxi DriverTaxi Driver (1976). Talking to me? Scorsese's classic starring Robert De Niro (pictured) is restored and re-released on its 35th anniversary

Shutter Island (2010). Not a blinder: Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese's feverish paranoid thriller

George Harrison - Living in the Material World (2011). Martin Scorsese's epic documentary of the Quiet One

The Wolf of Wall Street (2014). Con brio: Scorsese and DiCaprio tell of the rise and fall of a broker

Arena: The 50 Year Argument (2014). A warmly engaging film about the 'New York Review of Books' might have been more than a birthday love-in

Vinyl (2016). Scorsese and Jagger's series is prone to warping, skipping and scratches

Silence (2016). Scorsese's latest is a mammoth, more ponderous than profound


Overleaf: Watch the trailer for Hugo

For much of its first hour or so, some may wonder whether this is a Scorsese film at all, given the absence of the raw aggression and rage


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article


I saw Hugo over the weekend and it's fabulous. Martin Scorsese did a wonderful job and the cast was perfection. Not to mention the story. The book is awesome too. And one of my favorite quotes, which I've memorised, is "The complicated machinery in my automaton can draw over 158 pictures, it can write, letter by letter, an entire book, 20,159 words. These words."

You can tell Paramount have a dud from all the lack of hype about the film and all the small cinemas they have booked it in. At well over $100 dollars to make it will do well to make a profit either side of the Atlantic (though it will do well in France where it is set). The lecture - for that is all it is - on the history of film will bore pre-teen audiences that it appears aimed at. Sacha Baron Cohen appears to be making it up as he goes along and has a ridiculous 'Allo 'Allo policeman accent and the minor characters are seriously underwritten and if you blink you will miss Jude Law - 'notably warm cameo', really? The HD cameras show up (obviously unintentionally) dust in the studio whilst no character standing in snow has any land on them!! I could go on - this will fascinate those recently qualified with a media studies or film history degree and may win undeserved awards as a result but it is not a good film in the proper sense of the meaning. Scorsese shot apparently 100s of hours of film - I wonder if anything better what was left in the editing machine?

I thought 'Hugo' was really exciting, amongst other things pushing the boundaries of 3D. Having chatted with editor Thelma Schoonmaker (Michael Powell's widow) about 3D, I can confirm that the layering of 'veils' of 3D is absolutely intentional, making the audience constantly aware of a depth of field unseen in 3D up to now. Scorcese, like Powell, understands the link between film and theatre and demonstrates this throughout 'Hugo'. He works on a level of sophistication far beyond the normal range that studios allow in a 'family film'. The opening shot is a Scorcese special, reminiscent of the best of Raging Bull. My kids, from 11-18 were really intrigued by the story and, subsequently, the history. It's not undemanding entertainment, it requires exploration. At the very least Schoonmaker should get another Academy Award for her extraordinary editing.

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters