Yesterday afternoon I went to see the new Martin Scorcese film Hugo, based on the novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (which is going to be read by yours truly at the earliest available opportunity). This is an extraordinary film that as far as I'm concerned deserves every accolade it has received in so many reviews -- heartwarming in the very best, non-sappy sense of the term, Hugo is nothing less than a love letter to the magic of the movies, and by extension the magic of living life to the fullest. It's a gorgeously rendered story of the power and joy that comes from living life as you're wired to do, a reminder of the precious gift it is to find and follow your calling. Amazing, lovely, wonderful film -- highly, HIGHLY recommended.
Hugo Cabret is a young boy who lives in the walls of a Paris train station in the 1930s, where unbeknownst to the station regulars he cleans and maintains the clocks. In a heart-breaking flashback (featuring a wonderful cameo by Jude Law!), we learn that Hugo and his father, a master clockmaker, shared an affinity for all things mechanical and a love of the movies. When his father tragically perishes in a museum fire, Hugo is taken to live with his drunk uncle, also a watchmaker whose job it is to maintain the train station clocks. All Hugo has left of his former life is a broken automaton that his father rescued from the attic of the museum prior to his death. Hugo is driven to repair the mechanical man as a last connection to his father, so when his uncle disappears he stays on as the clock worker, filching food to survive and mechanical parts from the toy shop in order to continue working on the automaton. When the toy shop owner, Monsieur Georges, catches Hugo in the act of stealing, he's unexpectedly shocked by the boy's notebook detailing the mechanical workings of the automaton. Georges refuses to disclose why Hugo's book upsets him, and Hugo is equally determined to finish his father's work, whatever it takes. With the help of Georges's goddaughter Isabelle, the two children embark on an adventure to discover the truth behind the broken automaton, Georges's broken heart, and the power of dreams.
Let me get this out of the way first -- story aside, on visuals alone this film is STUNNING. I saw it in 2D and was completely blown away by its recreation of 1930s Paris -- oh it was a glorious world to watch unfold on-screen! And Hugo's home, the inner workings of the train station, were absolutely fascinating -- it's almost as if he lived inside his own automaton, the train station itself. The costumes, the sets, the attention to detail is a feast for period drama lovers' eyes. I feel sure this is a film that visually will reveal new treasures on each subsequent viewing.
Hugo is anchored by a stellar performance by Asa Butterfield as the young hero. Prior to this film I was most familiar with Butterfield from his work as young Mordred in the MerlinTV show (unbelievably creepy!) and last year in Nanny McPhee Returns. Butterfield is a terrific actor in the making and I predict he'll be a face to watch for years to come. I couldn't help thinking, leaving this film, that if Harry Potter were being made today (starting at the beginning), Butterfield would be pretty near perfect. As Hugo, Butterfield will just break your heart with his determination and sincerity, his search for belonging and purpose against the odds. His on-screen counterpart, Isabelle, is played by American actress Chloe Grace Mortez. I was quite impressed with her performance, and the sweet hint of a teenage romance in the offing between her and Butterfield on-screen. Isabelle is a delightfully nerdy (I mean that in a nice way!), bookish girl with a fantastic vocabulary which I just loved, a nice quirk.
The crotchety Monsieur Georges is brought to life by Ben Kingsley, and if Oscar nods were given out solely based on the ability to break my heart I'd say he deserved one. This performance was a treasure. Since I have yet to read the book, I wasn't aware until I started reading reviews of this film that actual historical characters featured in the plot. Monsieur Georges is in fact Georges Melies, a visionary French filmmaker. If the name is not familiar to you, perhaps this still from one of his most famous surviving films will be:
That image is from Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902). To try and make a long and fascinating history short for the purposes of this post, Melies made over 500 films before being forced into bankruptcy during World War I. Tastes had changed and his magical, fantastical films were no longer in style. He sold hundreds of feet of film, which were melted down and made into shoe heels. And this is where the fictional Hugo comes into play -- seeing a master "magician," heartbroken over the loss of his art and his purpose, Hugo's desire to rebuild the broken automaton becomes a quest to remind Melies who he really is, and that his art has not been forgotten as he so long believed.
I knew Scorcese was an vocal advocate of film preservation, and Hugo drives the importance of this venture home with heartbreaking clarity. Melies's lost films were not just throwaway whims, were not even just about his imagination -- his films speak of his time, the dreams of the creator and his contemporaries brought to life on celluloid. Films like A Trip to the Moon are reminders to mankind today of where we've come from, who we were, and who we hope to be -- oh the possibilities of unfettered imagination!
To speak a bit to my earlier point that the train station is a kind of automaton, a film set in which the young Hugo makes his home, I have to give a nod to the colorful characters that inhabit his world. This film is chock-full of Harry Potter alum. Frances del la Tour (Madame Maxime) is Madame Emilie, who is the proprietress of a restaurant. She is crushing on Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffiths, Uncle Vernon!), a newspaper seller (if memory serves me correctly). The fact that her dog HATES him, and how he works around it, is hilarious. Georges's wife is played by Helen McCrory (Narcissa Malfoy), and can I just tell you how much I like her? She is class personified -- not to mention crazy-lucky in the husband department as she's married to Damian Lewis. And in the non-Potter, but really cool cameo category, Christopher Lee makes an appearance as Monsieur Labisse, a bookseller who seems to know just what his patrons need.
My favorite subplot, though, is the Station Inspector with the mechancial brace on his leg, played by Sacha Baren Cohen and the flower seller Lisette played by Emily Mortimer. Cohen provides a lot of comic relief, as is to be expected, particularly when he and his Doberman mimic each other's poses and expressions. *wink* The Inspector is an interesting character -- secretly in love with Lisette, he feels he can't act on it because of his injury, and masks his inadequacy with bravado and legalism. I am a sap, I freely admit it, but I loved watching the Inspector just melt once he overcame his fear of speaking to Lisette -- Mortimer and Cohen are an unusal pair but I loved them in this film.
Hugo is a film that begs to be seen on the big-screen. It is a rare film that I feel is so joy-filled, so life-affirming, so hopeful. Yes there's heartbreak and pain and peril -- like the best stories this doesn't sugar-coat or ignore those realities of life. But what it will remind you of is the power of dreams and art and the magic of unfettered imagination. From the opening shot you'll be fully immersed in Hugo's world -- the art direction, the score (thank you, Howard Shore), the acting -- everything works in concert to weave its glorious spell, to draw you into the world of the film. A movie about the power of movies, the power of imagination, and the ability of art to connect people, Hugo is a treasure not to be missed, and one I'll enjoy revisiting time and again.