Scorsese goes stereoscopic, in style

For once, no one gets whacked, stabbed with a pen or beaten to a bloody pulp. For once, it isn’t that kind of ‘family’ movie. In fact, the film most unlike anything Martin Scorsese has ever made is one of the most personal of his career.

Swooping from the sky through tumbling snowflakes, volcanoes of steam and crowds of travellers, Hugo’s exuberant opening shot arrives at a pair of peering wide eyes. Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas) is a 13-year-old orphan who lives behind the giant clock in a Paris train station in 1931.

We spend almost half the film scampering after Hugo – as Scorsese’s camera whooshes joyfully through a labyrinth of ladders, shafts, cranks and cogs – without ever seeming to get too far, in narrative terms at least.

Our hero’s chased by the orphan-hunting station guard (Sacha Baron Cohen); he tries to fix a broken automaton left by his father (Jude Law, seen in flashback); he’s bullied by a grumpy toy-shop-owner named Papa George (Ben Kingsley).

After about an hour of this – enjoyable though it is -  Hugo finally gets where it’s going. And what emerges is something wonderful: an enchanting, funny, heartfelt love-letter to French film pioneer Georges Méliès – and to cinema itself.

We see how Méliès took movies to the moon and back in 1902, how silent cinema’s filmmakers were magicians who can still make us smile and gasp, and how precious things are lost between the grinding gears of technology and time.

There’s something truly perfect and poignant about using cinema’s breakthrough 3D technology to reach back into its past - and Scorsese revels in it. He shows us how the Lumière brothers’ famous Arrival Of A Train At La Ciotat terrified audiences in 1895 by sending a runaway locomotive thundering through the screen in 2011.

From Edwin S Porter to Harold Lloyd, from Cabiria to La Roue, Scorsese (quite literally at one point) riffles through the history book of cinema. He’s Doc Brown, time-travelling, taking us with him.

Still, in a film that hangs off clockwork imagery, Hugo sometimes feels a little… mechanical. A leisurely runtime (124 minutes) and some recycled chase scenes stop it just short of being the truly marvellous children’s adventure craved by Hugo’s bookworm friend (Chloe Grace Moretz).

Almost fittingly, the film’s wordless parts work best. Kingsley’s expertly balanced turn is full of buried pain and pride, much subtler than Cohen’s comic bluster (which can be hit and miss) and Butterfield’s slightly tense, if ultimately touching, performance.

But it’s easy to see why Scorsese has overindulged here. Despite being set in a storybook Paris, Hugo’s story is secretly Marty’s story: growing up watching the world through his window frame, falling in love with movies, restoring the reputation of his hero Michael Powell and becoming the patron saint of lost cinema. Moving images, indeed.


Based on Brian ‘cousin of David O’ Selznick’s award-winning children's novel, Martin Scorsese’s 3D debut is a technical marvel that weds heart to art in its soaring second half. For anyone who loves cinema - who really loves cinema - it can't be missed.

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User Reviews

    • magicwings

      Nov 29th 2011, 14:19


      The child leads of Martin Scorsese’s Christmas film Hugo are both currently 14 years old. Introducing his film last night at the Royal Film Premiere for the CTBF, Scorsese joked that, although his name is at the front of the film, this is a family movie. Actors Chloë Moretz and Asa Butterfield laughed along, although that’s probably because they’re not old enough to understand the irony – neither of them are old enough to see the films that Scorsese is famous for. Taxi Driver. Casino. Goodfellas. They are each pieces of movie magic; violent, elegant archways at the foot of a path leaving our world and warping it into something new. Hugo is all about this: the magical place that film can take you. In 1930s Paris, Hugo Cabret (Butterfield) is the owner of a broken Automaton, a clockwork mechanical man used by magicians and circus readers as illusion of life. The son of a watchmaker, his mind is mechanical too, stealing cogs and screws from stalls in the train station in which he lives in order to fix the robotic fella. After stealing one toy mouse too many, the owner of the local toy shop Papa George (Sir Ben Kingsley) forces him to work to pay for each item stolen. Innocently falling for his goddaughter Isabelle (Moretz), Cabret goes on an adventure with her to find the missing pieces of the Automaton. Amongst a supporting cast of characters that flesh out the world, the three leads do a wonderful job of making a personal story almost epic. Butterfield’s focus and drive is the magical force of the film, taking him through chases in the station followed closely by the station master Sacha Baron Cohen, to the library of Christoper Lee, and ultimately to the home of Papa George to meet his beautiful actress wife Mama Jeanne (Helen McCrory). Each frame of the world feels like a dream and, while it may be filled with pixels and binary instead of bricks and cement, it’s a wonderfully beautiful, living, breathing world that Scorsese has crafted. While the film is visually gorgeous and heartwarming, its biggest flaw is its length. As a family film over two hours long, it has lengthy periods of scene-setting during which the younger demographic will switch off, and the plot thins a few times to the point where you’re waiting a while for it to be picked up again. But these are minor gripes in what is essentially the best Christmas film this side of the century: a stunning, sentimental family film that would sit comfortably on any shelf alongside Home Alone, The Nightmare Before Christmas and – yes – Goodfellas. Ultimately, it's everything that you would expect from Martin Scorsese and more: an affectionate, passionate homage to the magic of film and innocent first love.

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