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Friday, February 10, 2012

Hugo (3D)

I know I still have a number of films to get to and I will hopefully have at least some bite-sized reviews of the films that I have not yet reviewed for the site that have come out over the past few weeks. For now though, here's my review of the film that I hope wins Best Picture at this year's Academy Awards.

Also at Channel24 in edited, less rambling form

What it's about

A young boy living in a train station in 1930s Paris finds himself involved in a mystery surrounding an automaton that is the final remaining possession of his late father.

What we thought

Since the late 1960s, Martin Scorsese has remained one of America's greatest filmmakers who, aside for being remarkably prolific, has released a good dozen or so films that represent the very pinnacle of cinema as an artform. He may have had his ups and downs, but no one would dare suggest that Scorsese hasn't by now, in a year when he is to celebrate his 70th birthday, earned both his place in history and the right to rest on his laurels and allow his spectacular body of work to speak for itself. Instead, he has released Hugo, a film that may not be as influential as his best known pieces but, for my money at least, is every bit as good as anything he has ever done.

The secret in its success, clearly lies in the fact that Hugo is so thoroughly different, so diametrically opposed even, to the gritty explorations of the dark side of life that has permeated all of his signature masterpieces. If not for the sheer technical mastery with which Hugo is put together, it would be nigh impossible to believe that it shares a director with the likes of Goodfellas, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver. Indeed, aside for the gloriously pulpy pastiche of Shutter Island, the only films that so much as hint towards Hugo in Scorsese's brilliant but undeniably dark oeuvre, are the several music documentaries he has released over the years.

Hugo isn't the Scorsese of Raging Bull, nor is it even the Scorsese of the “lighter fair” of The King of Comedy or After Hours – it's the Scorsese of Shine A Light, No Direction Home, Living In The Material World and, of course, The Last Waltz. As his love for music suffused these documentaries/ concert films with a genuine sense of warm-hearted joie de vivre (even if the subjects themselves could have called for a far darker approach), so too has his love for cinema given Hugo the kind of delightful, child-like sense of wonder that is normally the preserve of a Steven Spielberg or a Frank Capra.

Based on a beloved children's book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret (a title that I actually wish they kept for the film), Hugo is Scorsese's self-described attempt to make a film suitable for his young daughter (it's the first of his films to be rated PG in twenty years) but it would hardly be a stretch to say that it is something he also made for his younger self. Without giving anything away, Hugo is partly a simple but beautifully and wittily handled adventure story, filled with likeable young heroes, exciting set pieces and colourful supporting characters, and partly a film about film itself. Scorsese's obvious enthusiasm for the early days of cinema comes through beautifully through his loving attention to detail and vital, joyous celebration of the very way films used to be produced and projected. This is the history of cinema as told by the coolest professor in the world.

Every single aspect of Hugo is perfectly honed and lovingly crafted. Scorsese's direction is as certain and sure-footed as it ever was and the great man has clearly gone to great lengths to ensure that every aspect of production is as perfect as his own vision. The cinematography of Robert Richardson is nothing short of breathtaking as the camera swoops and glides through the slightly surreal world of a stylized 1930s Paris - as created by the clearly immensely talented crew of art directors, makeup artists and set designers that Scorsese has assembled. And Hugo is simply the best script that veteran screenwriter John Logan has ever written.

As for the mostly British cast, you would have to go a long way to find better than the assortment of thespians that both lead (Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley) and add colourful support (Ray Winstone, Sacha Baron Cohen, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee) to the unfolding narrative. Asa Butterfield, all of 13 years old at the time of filming, is especially excellent in the title role – he's so great in fact that Scorsese apparently (according to the man himself in a recent interview with Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode on their BBC radio show) decided to have all the actors in the film speak with an English accent, despite all the action being set in France, so as not to mess with the pitch-perfect performance that he gave when auditioning in his native, English accent.

If you're not convinced by the film's instant classic status then consider this: Scorsese has created a film that genuinely needs to be seen in 3D. Not only does the 3D effect actually add to the film visually, it also has a story-based reason for being there. It apparently wasn't enough that Scorsese has made a true masterpiece that stands head and shoulders with his very best work but he had to go ahead and show that maybe there might just be more to 3D than an expensive and increasingly irritating gimmick.

Ignore the questionable marketing, whatever your age, make sure that not only do you see this spectacular piece of cinema as soon as you possibly can but make sure you see it the way God and Marty Scorsese intended: projected and in (and I really can't believe I'm typing this) glorious 3D. It's that good.  


  1. Bravo! I couldn't agree more. I'm very torn between which nominee should take home the best picture - I love The Artist, The Descendants, Midnight in Paris, and Hugo equally.

  2. Yeah, I must say, all four of those films are phenomenal and I would be happy with any of them winning but, for me, Hugo just edges them out.