Review: Martin Scorsese's 'Hugo' is a rapturous lesson in the value of art
As always, Martin Scorsese says it better than I ever could.
Little by little, I've started to feel like Film Nerd 2.0 is one of the most significant things I've done since I've started writing about film online in 1995, and it's part of a bigger plan I have. I eventually plan to get involved in creating and implementing some very real educational reform involving media education that runs K-12, so that kids are given a media literacy on par with any print literacy that is taught. I think we have a responsibility, given the omnipresence of media in the lives of modern children, to not only encourage them with choices about what to watch, but also to teach them how to watch. Without context, how do you expect them to navigate the ocean of choice available to them at all times these days?
Martin Scorsese has spoken at length in the press about wanting to make a movie that his 12-year-old daughter could see, and how much he loved 3D in the '50s, and how this movie serves as, in some ways, autobiography because of his own childhood spent trapped by asthma in a private world, cut off from other kids. All of that is true, but the moment you start putting labels like "kid's film" on a movie like "Hugo," you are being reductive in your thinking, and that's missing the point entirely. In its own way, this is "Film Nerd 2.0: The Movie," and perhaps the most head-over-heels-in-love movie about movies since "Cinema Paradiso."
Based on a novel by Brian Selznick, "Hugo" tells the story of a young man whose father died, abandoning him to the cruelties of a romanticized version of 1930s Paris. Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) was raised by his father (seen briefly in flashback and played by Jude Law) to be a clockmaker, just as his father was, and the two of them shared a private language defined by this world of clockwork and machines. Hugo's father brought home one item in particular that he found collecting dust in storage at a museum, and together, they worked to restore this automaton, this mysterious mechanical man, to working order. When his father died, the project was still unfinished, and since then, Hugo's been hiding, working on it, doing whatever he has to do to stay free and solve this mystery.
Early on, it's obvious that the film is less about the mechanical man and more about the way broken people sometimes need other people to fix them, how we can all play some part in the lives of others, sometimes without meaning to. Hugo's search for answers leads him to meet an angry, sad old man named Georges played by Ben Kingsley, who runs a toy shop in the train station in the heart of Paris, which is where Hugo lives in the walls, keeping the clocks running. Hugo has to stay watchful, constantly hiding from the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), who would love nothing more than to send Hugo to an orphanage. Hugo observes the daily life of the train station, the various people playing out all the various stories around him, never participating, trying to make sense of this world he watches.
The first half of the film gradually draws Hugo and Papa Georges together, and it's Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) who is the bridge between them. She befriends Hugo when he's caught stealing from the toy booth, and she slowly draws out the details of Hugo's story, never realizing that she's living with the answer to Hugo's mystery. During the entire first half of the film, Scorsese takes tangible pleasure in laying out the geography of Hugo's secret world inside the walls of the train station, and in using his camera to fly around this incredible location. Robert Richardson's cinematography is lush and swoony, and Dante Ferretti's production design gives him a great playground for that camera of his. Considering Scorsese's background and the way he rarely leans on visual effects, he seems positively giddy about using them to build this world that doesn't exist, that may never have existed, but that feels like the Paris that should have been, that people dream of when they dream of Paris. It is an entirely artificial movie, but that's part of what makes it so beautiful. It's a deliberate choice, this movie built on planes, a pop-up storybook city where we get lost between the cogs in the clockwork, and just on a technical level, it's gorgeous.
It's in the second half of the film that "Hugo" goes from good to great, and it also reveals itself as one of the most intensely personal films Scorsese has ever made, as central to an understanding of him as an artist as any of his early classics like "Mean Streets" or "Raging Bull." Without giving away the film's secrets, I'll just say that the movie eventually makes an argument for, of all things, film preservation, but in ways I didn't expect. Yes, it argues that you have to take care of films in a physical sense, making sure they are available and able to be seen. But it also argues for preservation in other ways, such as making sure people see these movies that we take care of. After all, what's the point in making sure there are prints of something if there's nobody watching the films anymore? It is the job of everyone who loves movies to try to pass that love along, and to share older films with zeal. You have to show people why you love what you love. And then Scorsese even goes beyond that to make the case for homage as another form of film preservation. You won't have to work very hard to see the references to "L'Arivee d'un Train en agree de La Ciotat" or Harold Lloyd's "Safety First," since he underlines the nods by showing the actual clips elsewhere in his film, and he wants you to connect the dots. He's explaining that artists build on the work of other artists, and he's showing you the way movies bounce around inside of an artist before they emerge in some new combination of ideas, some new context for an image. Only by doing all three of those things do we truly keep films alive, part of the ongoing conversation that is cinema.
And as much as I love the movie stuff, it's really the idea of how people fix other people that speaks to me, and the movie is overt in the way it introduces all of its main characters as broken in some way, in need of just the right piece or part to fix them, and Hugo emerges as a lovely catalyst, acted with a great sense of wide-eyed sorrow by Butterfield. I love the supporting cast in the film, the adults that surround Hugo as he moves through this story in search of the piece that will fix him. Christopher Lee makes a strong impression in his brief role, Ray Winstone is suitably awful as the drunken uncle who claims Hugo when his father dies, and Jude Law is lovely in his brief time as the father who taught Hugo how to fix things. Emily Mortimer, Frances de la Tour, Richard Griffiths, and Sacha Baron Cohen fill in the lives of these people around the train station with lots of great, well-observed little touches as well, and the entire thing has a languid, sweet charm.
It is Ben Kinglsey and Helen McCrory who just tear me up, though, whose work as Papa Georges and Mama Jeanne is so wonderful, so richly played, so heart-wrenchingly human. Kingsley has rarely been better than he is here, and when I realized that McCrory isn't actually a woman in her 80s, I was shocked. I didn't recognize her from her role as Draco Malfoy's mother, and she plays her age make-up in a natural, honest way that no one in "J. Edgar" ever managed. Their storyline and the way the secret is teased out and finally revealed is devastating, and I really can't wait to see the film again if only to watch that final third, when we really learn who they are, what they shared, and what they have lost.
I love that Selznick's story is based in biographical truth, and John Logan's screenplay adaptation is incredible, built just right, a wondrous piece of clockwork in its own right. Howard Shore's score adds the final touch to a hypnotic piece of work that I think stands right alongside Scorsese's finest, although it is such a new voice for the filmmaker that some longtime fans may be thrown. People who think of Scorsese only in terms of crime films sell him short, and they are the ones who will miss out on this thrilling, beautiful movie that believes we each have a place and a purpose, and true peace only comes from finding it.
"Hugo" opens in theaters today.