Thursday 8 December 2011


(Martin Scorsese, 2011)

If you love cinema, its hard to see how this film will fail to move you. For here is one of Scorsese's hymns to the power of cinema itself, a celebration of the magic of movies, the power they possess to bring dreams to life. Usually he infuses his documentaries on film - one on American Cinema, one on Italian - with his wonder and enthusiasm, but the subject matter of Hugo allows him to fill this film with the emotion of his own relationship with the medium, and in doing so the last act acquires a thrilling, almost awed sense of excitement as Scorsese does away with framing devices and simply shows us some of the work of George Melies, that pioneer of early fantasy cinema.
The framing device is a kids film; the story of Hugo Cabret, a young orphan living in a Paris Train Station in the 1920s. He resides in secret quarters in the ceiling, moves around inside the Walls, spying on the merchants who man the shops and keeping the clocks running. While trying to fix an automaton as a way to reconnect with his recently-deceased father he becomes involved with the mysterious and grumpy old man who owns the toy kiosk, which eventually leads to the magic of cinema and Melies.
In many ways this plays like the sort of thing Tim Burton would make. Slightly less gothic, perhaps, yet set in a detailed fantasy-world version of the past, with an overtly stylised aesthetic evident in the design, costumes and photography which - together with the need for a Steady supply of 3D effects - means Scorsese indulges in many pointless vertiginous swoops of his camera through space. The pallette is a little familiar; all rusty yellows and marine blues, and the editing is often sloppy, the entire film overlong.
It does feature some superb cinematic storytelling from Scorsese, in the scenes where we see the life of the station from Hugo's point of view in sequences reminiscent of Hitchcock's Rear Window. There are plenty of laughs here, many of them courtesy of Sacha Baron Cohen, who finds just the right pitch between realism and cartoon comedy for his character, the villain of the piece for so long, yet one who remains complex and sympathetic.
Yet Scorsese ensures that the comic tone and the derring-do necessary in a Childrens adventure don't prevent the hefty emotional kick of the climax, which plays upon themes of memory and creativity and rests upon the invention of Melies for its visual quality.
The cast, peopled mainly by strong British talent - Christopher Lee, Emily Mortimer, Ray Winstone - in even the smallest roles are generally strong, though the young lead, Asa Butterfield, overacts horrendously throughout.

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