While Martin Scorsese has been associated with crime stories set in New York City ever since his breakthrough picture, 1973’s Mean Streets, he has also crossed into other genres with ease and confidence. His follow-up to Mean Streets was the female-empowerment-themed Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, for which Ellen Burstyn won the best actress Oscar. (If you only know the story from watching the ‘80’s sitcom version, you need to see the original – it’s gold compared to Alice’s brass) He’s also done documentaries (The Last Waltz), costume dramas (The Age of Innocence), and biographies (The Aviator) – even sequels and remakes (The Color of Money, Cape Fear). They all show Scorsese’s excellence behind the camera, his encyclopedic knowledge of film technique, and his ability to collaborate with actors to create memorable performances.
When I heard that Scorsese’s new film was an adaptation of a children’s book set in a train station in post-WWI Paris, and that it was filmed in 3D, it sounded like he’d gone off the rails. I should have known that he would instead produce a gem of a movie, and a love letter to movie lovers everywhere.
Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lives in the catacombs and scaffolding of a train station in Paris where he keeps the clocks wound and functioning. He’d come to live with his Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone) and help him with his work after his father (Jude Law) was killed at the museum where he worked. Claude disappeared months earlier, leaving Hugo to fend for himself by pilfering food from the vendors in the station such as Madame Emilie (Frances de la Tour), who runs a café. He must also watch out for the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) who patrols the platforms, catching children and sending them to an orphanage.
From his hiding places, Hugo watches the life happening around him, such as the news agent Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffiths) and his attempts to court Madame Emilie, and the flower vendor Lisette (Emily Mortimer), with whom the Inspector is infatuated. But Hugo’s only companion is a mechanical man that his father had rescued from the basement at the museum where it sat, broken and forgotten. Hugo is continuing the repair work on the automaton that he began with his father, but he is missing a key piece.
He’s been scavenging gears and pieces from a toy shop in the station, run by an embittered old man, Georges (Ben Kingsley). When Georges catches Hugo in the act, he takes a notebook from Hugo containing the notes Hugo’s father had made on the mechanical man. To get it back, Hugo enlists the help of Georges’ goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz). A friendship develops between the two children, with Isabelle opening the world of books to Hugo with the help of Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee) who runs the station’s book store. In return, Hugo introduces Isabelle to the magic of movies.
This is a story of loss and reclamation, of hope extinguished and then rekindled. Along the way, it is also a story of movies themselves and the wonder engendered by flickering images on the screen. Besides being one of the premier directors of this age, Scorsese is also a student of the cinema, and that love shines through.
The casting is incredible. Besides those already mention, you have Helen McCrory as Georges’ wife, Mama Jeanne, who you see both as a beautiful young muse and an older haunted woman with eyes filled with pain and regret. Curiously, three actors in the movie appeared in the Harry Potter series: McCrory (Narcissa Malfoy), Griffiths (Vernon Dursley), and de la Tour (Madame Olympe Maxime, the giant headmistress of Beauxbatons), though they never had a scene together. Along with the gorgeous cinematography and set design, the supporting actors make you feel you’re watching a Parisian poster from that era come to life.
Sacha Baron Cohen is the comic relief, yet even with the physical comedy (helped by a brace on his long leg), Scorsese sits on him, keeping his usual wildness reined in. The result is a comedic performance that also has tenderness and pathos. Ben Kingsley is stellar as always, especially as he slowly warms to Hugo.
The two young leads are remarkable. Chloe Grace Moretz has done some remarkable work even before turning 15 (Kick-Ass, Let Me In). As Isabelle, she is delightful. Asa Butterfield has the bluest eyes since Paul Newman. He hasn’t done a lot of previous work, though he was Bruno in The Boy with the Striped Pajamas. Butterfield captures the awkwardness as well as the humanity of Hugo, who is impelled to fix things (and people) that have been broken.
3D has been used recently as a gimmick to inflate the box office of bad films with the surcharge for the technique. With Hugo, you see how it can add to the movie experience when used by a master director. Scorsese designed the film to incorporate the 3D into the experience, and it is worth the extra price to fully see Scorsese’s vision. He’s always been a director who’s taken the newest techniques and mastered them.
This is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. It plays your heart like a violin virtuoso, lifting you high and dropping you low. It’s why we’ve been going to the movies for over 100 years, and will continue to do so.