Hugo: Scorsese can do family flicks! Who knew?

I saw Hugo recently and I have to confess to having had a pretty good time. The whole 3D experience worked for me. The opening shot in this film is truly remarkable and heralds a new turn for film making. What Scorsese is able to do with 3D in this film really had me understand why it is worth persuing for artistic reasons.

Scorsese has been described as “the supreme poet of middle-aged male rage” and that’s pretty much how I see him. I do think he’s a great director, but he definitely struggles to escape his ‘blokiness’  – Age of Innocence and Kundun not withstanding. This does show in Hugo. It’s more plodding than other ‘kids’ films it would be compared with (Harry Potter of course) and he can’t quite tap into the child thing like Spielberg, Burton or Gilliam can.

Having said that, the sumptuous, enormous beauty of Scorsese is here, and really that is at the heart of this lovely film. It’s the way it looks that captures your heart. It’s set in Paris, virtually impossible to make ugly anyway, and the 3D brings to life bubbles, snowflakes, trains, crowds, fireworks, mermaids, clocks and many other idealised symbols of fantasy. This is a film about cinema and time and the remarkable abilities of each to cure pain and sadness.

Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is a boy/man who lives alone in the clock tower of a Parisian central station repairing and maintaining all the clocks. He’s not been commissioned with this job, he was literally abandoned to it. When his father (Jude Law) dies in a museum fire, he is taken to life in the secret chambers the clocks by his uncle (Ray Winstone), a drunkard who teaches Hugo the job of maintaining the clocks. When he goes out one day and doesn’t come back, Hugo continues to eek out an existence maintaining the clocks so no one realizes he is alone, always keeping his distance from the local policeman (Sacha Baron Cohen) who, an orphaned child himself, makes it his business to see that children running the streets end up cold and alone in the orphanage, just as he was sent there as a child. Hugo feeds himself by stealing from the local merchants and spends his time restoring an automaton he believes will have a message for him from his father if only he can get it working again. He steals parts for this from Papa George (Ben Kingsley) who is always angry and trying to catch Hugo. Teh scene is set for the redemption of almost every character in the film.

Hugo developes a friendship with Isabelle (Chloë Moretz) who ‘happens’ to have the key to the automaton on a thread around her neck. Why she has the key, and what happens to the man-machine when they turn it on is when the narrative moves toward Ben Kinglseys character, and away from the children. I won’t go into the story detail here, because of spoilers, however the film turns in a new direction and a passionate love of the birth of cinema opens up for the children and audience alike.

The first part of the film when it is just about the children and their adventure is a little slower – I have to confess i didn’t mind the pace. it might bug children who these days are used to more action, but I thought it developed the characters well and Hugo is the character we feel the most sympathy for. However the film really picks up when the narrative shifts away from the very intense Hugo to the bitter Papa George. It does make a difference that the most exciting aspects of the film are kept for the second half. We get to play with all the beauty in the first half and ten are offered a great story with a lot going on when we are ready for more from the film. it also gives Scorsese the wonderful opportunity to indulge (us and himself) in an imagined potted history of pioneering cinema, the pre-narrative, urtexts of the medium, such as the Arrival of a Train at a Station by the celebrated Lumière brothers.

You get the idea that this is really what Scorsese really wanted to say and although it does leave the children a little abandoned (and sort of forgets it’s actually a children’s film) it is a polished and beautiful cinema experience.