Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Ben Kingsley, Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helen McCrory, Christopher Lee, Jude Law
Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is quite simply a masterpiece. Full stop. It’s that absolutely rarest kind of movie: One which constantly reminds why you love movies. This is true even after the film has ended, when you are hardly able to contain a desire to run right out and tell others that they need to see this movie. I actually succumbed to doing just that—and in a sense that’s what I’m still doing here. As soon as the lights went up in the theater, I told my viewing companions (both of whom know I rarely talk about a movie right after it’s over) that I honestly felt that seeing the film was a privilege. The moment I got home from seeing the film, I started telling people to “stop whatever you’re doing and go see Hugo.”
There are, of course, those who will automatically denigrate Hugo for not being as “important” as Scorsese’s other films, and claim that it’s a lesser work because it’s a “children’s” film (though it really isn’t). What a sad and short-sighted view that is. I think it is quite likely Scorsese’s masterpiece—and almost certainly the most personal film he has ever made. Yes, it is a film about a boy, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield, Nanny McPhee Returns), who lives in the walls of a Paris train station in the 1930s, but it’s also considerably more than that. It’s a movie about the movies, and about the people who make them and the people who love them. It’s the story of the birth of every movie geek—and in that way, it’s Scorsese’s own story as well as our own. It’s about the history of the movies, the passing of time and the cruelty of changing tastes. It’s about dreams, the magic of the movies and their unique ability to make dreams real. And it’s the most elegant and beautiful film of the year—possibly of the 21st century thus far.
For those who don’t know, Hugo tells the story of a boy whose father (Jude Law in one of his best performances) is killed in a museum fire. The boy, Hugo, is then taken over by his rough and generally drunk Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone), whose job is to tend the clocks in the railway station. When Uncle Claude disappears, Hugo continues to live in the station and keep the clocks going—realizing that so long as the clocks run accurately no one is going to notice (or care) that Claude isn’t there. Not only does Hugo not want to be sent to an orphan asylum, but he wants to finish a project he started with his father—the rebuilding of an automaton that was found in the museum where his father worked. The automaton is a small mechanical man, whose function—in this case, an unusually elaborate one—appears to have been to write.
In order to find parts for the machine, Hugo has taken to stealing toys from Papa Georges’ (Ben Kingsley) toy stand in the station and adapting their inner workings to the automaton. That’s all well and good so long as the embittered Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) doesn’t catch him. And though that doesn’t happen, Papa Georges does catch the boy and becomes unaccountably upset when he sees the little notebook Hugo has that details the automaton’s workings. In fact, he takes the booklet from the boy with a plan to burn it, which he appears to do—although Papa Georges’ ward Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) reveals to Hugo that this hasn’t happened. The story then becomes a mystery about what secret Papa Georges is harboring—and why Isabelle has the key that allows the automaton to function. And that mystery deepens when the thing does work and the pair see what it does. Beyond that—for the benefit of those who know little of the film’s plot—I’m going to say no more, except to note that Papa Georges turns out to be a real person and one of the great pioneers of filmmaking.
The depth of what is going on and what is being addressed in this film is simply amazing. As far as I’m concerned, absolutely all of it works. That includes the story itself, though there’s more here than the story—moving and beguiling as it is. The film manages to capture the essence of cinema, to trace the history of it, celebrate it, and offer the most heartbreaking cry for film preservation I’ve ever seen. And it does this last not by preaching about the topic, but by making it wholly human and putting a face to it—and a real face at that—so that it becomes as much a very personal tragedy—and triumph—as an artistic one.
I cannot recommend Hugo too highly. It is superb on every level—from its technical accomplishments to every aspect of every performer. (I never thought I could so absolutey love Christopher Lee as I do here.) It’s a film of almost unbearable—even heartbreaking—beauty in every sense. Its sheer humanity is astonishing—as is its utter lack of postmodern irony and cynicism. This is a fine, fine film that ought to be seen by anyone who loves the movies. Rated PG for mild thematic material, some action/peril and smoking.