I was completely blindsided by Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, which turned out to be that very rare big budget effects-heavy family film that might actually be worthy of the adjective “magical”. It’s set around one of the main train stations in Paris in about 1930 and is concerned with the fortunes of a plucky and resourceful orphan with a fascination with machinery who has learned how to conceal himself from the authorities within the structure housing the station clock. Hugo has run-ins with the buffoonish station inspector and the forbidding toy stall owner Georges, who is clearly harbouring much sadness and regret, the nature of which seems to be obliquely connected with the intricate clockwork automaton that Hugo has inherited from his father and is trying to get working again. The story starts moving properly once Hugo falls in with Isabelle, another orphan with a much more sheltered upbringing who’s keen to have an adventure with a real outsider.
The environments of the movie are designed and rendered in a precise and heightened style that reminds me a bit of Tim Burton or certain Coen Brothers projects (The Hudsucker Proxy particularly), and there’s liberal use of computer generated effects to help realise the panoramic sweeps through the station and the mighty cogs and pendulums of the clock tower, and while it’s all impressive eye candy I was wondering for the first half of the film why Scorsese of all people had chosen to take it on – this is about as far as you can imagine it’s possible to get from the brutally realistic settings of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. It’s only when the back story of one of the characters starts to be revealed that one realises what the main subject of the piece is, at which point Scorsese’s involvement makes perfect sense – without giving too much away, Hugo is actually a deeply personal film and the resonance with its director’s own childhood experiences is where it draws its power from. At exactly the point where most special effects blockbusters would be lapsing into tedious and convoluted chases and threats and false climaxes and over-extended action sequences Hugo lets its gimmicky elements slide and concentrates on one person’s life story, its disappointments and the possibilities for redemption. I was openly weeping in the cinema at one point and believe me, that doesn’t happen often. The film wraps up beautifully, with just enough conflict to provide narrative tension but without crassly reducing the chief antagonist to a cartoon villain, and the epilogue is genuinely moving. Performances are spot-on throughout, with the bulk of the weight being carried by the young Asa Butterfield, whose piercing blue eyes and haunted expression really sell Hugo’s desperation, and Ben Kingsley, who succeeds in preserving the mystery of Georges’s motivations. It’s also really pleasing to see Christopher Lee keep up his tradition of dignified cameos.
Hugo is it would seem something of a triumph, and even the use of 3D seemed appropriate by the end. Amelie meets Cinema Paradiso, and you don’t even need the subtitles on. The best Christmas film I’ve seen in years and with no trees, sledges, reindeers or fat men with white beards anywhere to be seen.