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Scorcese’s Hugo: a powerful love letter to the power of art and dreams

December 21, 2011
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Martin Scorcese’s Hugo 3D is an incredibly moving and beautiful evocation of the potential of cinema – a place where dreams and nightmares can take flight and lift you out of the ordinary and the humdrum.

Young, orphaned Hugo Cabret, lives in a Paris railway station, maintaining the clocks with skills taught him by his dead, but still beloved, father. His passion is restoring an automaton his father rescued from a museum, believing it will produce a message from his father.

However, it requires a heart-shaped key to get its clockworks going and Hugo also needs to deal with Monsieur Georges, the old and troubled owner of a toy kiosk in the station, from whom he has been stealing.

But, in meeting Georges’ goddaughter Isabelle, Hugo is on the way to getting the automaton working and unlocking a long buried vault of memories of people responsible for creating cinema, a theatre of dreams. They unlock the suppressed achievements of men and women who transfixed the modern world before WWI stole a generation’s innocence and wonder.

M Georges is in fact Georges Méliès, a grand homme of early French cinema, a man who brought wonder to a generation, a man who shuns his great legacy by burying it beneath his regrets and sadness.

Scorcese treats a children’s film with the same kind of deep intelligence that he brought to much of the rest of his career. He uses the great history of European and American film to say to children: ‘Look, people like those on the screen brought wonder and dreams to people who knew no better. They created the industry that created the environment in which we are sitting. We need to cherish them and our own sense of wonder.’

It is a spectacular achievement of narrative and meta-narrative and a stunning love letter to cinema.

The art direction creates a beautiful dreamlike Paris, not unlike that of Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline books, while the station, in which much of the action takes place, is a self-contained universe of larger than life characters. All human life is there and all its emotions: love and hate, life and death, tragedy and comedy.

What’s most apparent is the depth of the characterization – there is not one duff performance. Sir Ben Kingsley and Helen McCrory as Georges and Jeanne are the emotional anchors of the piece, people who deserve greater footnotes in history but who rue the innocence lost after WWI.

Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths give touchingly understated turns as elderly Parisians in search of love, Emily Mortimer puts in a lovely turn as a flower seller.

Sacha Baron Cohen, the caliper-legged station policeman is perhaps the key dramatic touchstone of the movie. Emotionally scarred by an upbringing in orphanages and physically and mentally scarred by his fighting in WWI, he seeks to find emotional belonging and love while dispensing the long arm of the law with his Doberman dog.

The standout performances are, however, by the youngsters of the piece. Asa Butterfield as the orphaned and eponymous Hugo, is a wide eyed boy made old before his years. He keeps the world of the railway running, keeping the clocks on time long after the uncle who took him to live in the station has disappeared. His is a lovely performance of wide-eyed wonder, grit and belief in faith in love and remembrance of his father.

Chloë Grace Moretz as Isabelle, Georges’ goddaughter, is his foil, a precocious, book loving teenage girl keen on an adventure who knows little of her godfather and godmother’s theatrical and cinematic eminence. She is sensational, giving an emotionally engaging performance that reeks of goodness and the virtues of believing in the inherent worth of everyone. She veers to the Enid Blyton at times, but you what, that’s not necessarily always a bad thing.

Time, maintaining it, and the rituals of the day framed by time, play a huge part in the meta-narrative. Time is an inherently modern construct, or at least its accurate measurement is, and cinema suspends both it, and the rational belief that it engenders, in this movie.

This movie is as touching a love letter to film that Cinema Paradiso was all those years ago. It is an intelligent movie for children and, Lord knows, we need more of them.

But, more than anything it is a movie that wears a deep, unbridled devotion to the magical qualities of cinema on its sleeve.

It says that cinema came from the tradition of magic; from the travelling fair and tricking people into believing they were seeing something they weren’t. It says that cinema once reconfirmed a sense of wonder that the rational world had eroded since the Enlightenment. It says that while cinema and modernism gave us back a sense of wonder, WWI and subsequent wars have stolen that sense of wonder and instilled a sense of antipathy and disengaged (shell) shock.

This film is a testament to love and to the power of memory. Love is something for those that have lost to regain it; either as orphans finding new parents, or those, previously traumatized, to find companionship. For memory, it is about revering the sense of innocence that may have been lost and about banishing the deep traumas of war and division that stole it.

It says that at the start of the 20th Century, perhaps for the last time, we were truly shocked and awestruck by the possibilities of art to transcend the conscious being.

It deserves recognition for its philosophical rumination on the power of art and the history of the development of human psychology and rationalism. It is a footnote in modern cinema.

Most importantly, Hugo says that cinema and art are places where our dreams can take flight amid the awful realities of daily life and human history. It ultimately says we must revere the Lumiere brothers, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Georges Méliès – those that allowed us to dream.

It is a truly life-affirming example of artists collectively creating a special love letter to cinema.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. ondacobbles permalink
    December 21, 2011 2:08 am

    you set it up well. Scorcese is the master. this appeals to me far more than the frankly disappointing Tin Tin

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