Director: Martin Scorsese. Paramount/GK Films/Infinitum Nihil.
Producers: Johnny Depp, Tim Headington, Graham King, Martin Scorsese. Writer: John Logan. Camera: Robert Richardson. Music: Howard Shore. Sets: Dante Ferretti.
Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron-Cohen, Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Helen McCrory, Michael Stuhlbarg, Frances de la Tour, Richard Griffiths, Jude Law.
Young orphan Hugo (Butterfield) lives amongst the clocks at a Paris train station since his drunken uncle Claude (Winstone) disappeared. One day he is caught stealing from elderly toy-maker Georges (Kingsley) an act that sees the two become good friends and Hugo discovering that Georges is none other than the grandfather of cinema, Georges Melies, who has fallen on hard times since becoming bankrupt. Despite Georges reluctance, Hugo sets about helping him gain the recognition he deserves for his magical early films.
The silent movie seems to be making an appropriately quiet comeback of late: The Artist is set for release early in 2011 and concerns a silent movie hero worrying whether he will cut it in the ‘talkies’ and is tipped for big nominations during the awards season. Veteran director Scorsese warms us up with this, his homage to early movie maestro Georges Melies, adapted from the novel ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’ by Brian Selznick, a relative of another major figure in cinema (Gone With the Wind producer David O.).
Odd to see Scorsese the maestro behind the ultra violent Taxi Driver and Goodfellas attached to what is a whimsical children’s tale. But Scorsese, more than anything else, is a self-avowed movie nut so there is probably no better director than he to big-up the grand old codger of the cinematograph, as it was known in Melies’ day.
His decision to film entirely in 3D is a risky one: it adds extra expense to a production and can be the mark of a poor film that needs a gimmick to bolster box office courage (Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, the last instalment in the Narnia trilogy, Voyage of the Dawn Treader being some examples). By and large it is utilised correctly here, adding an extra level of depth to the proceedings. The most noteworthy aspects of the production design, the ever present cogs, levers, motions, pistons and steam that swing and shunt about the screen, pop out with wonderful effect.
Of course, it goes without saying that Scorsese knows how and where to point his camera, readily apparent here in the amazing opening tracking shot above Paris, flying into the train station, through the throng of passengers and up into the clock that Hugo lives behind.
What a shame then that the story is so very slight, almost inconsequential. It bimbles along pleasently (and slowly) enough, but Hugo’s story becomes a thing of the past itself as Scorsese clearly has eyes for another’s films. His interest (and therefore the film) only gets fired up when the most famous faces and images of the silent era whizz past us for a robust introduction to earily cinema. Later on, he repeats this affection when Melies proudly fesses up about who he once was and charts his illustrious former career. Scorsese gives us an enchanting sequence of what remains of Melies’ back catalogue of trick films, including the famous Voyage to the Moon.
The performances are lovely all-round, despite not one actor offering a French accent. Kingsley is the perfect choice for Melies and plays him like a grouchy grandfather who is mad at the world but dotes on his family. Baron-Cohen amuses as the station inspector obsessed with rounding up the city’s orphans and Lee has a nice cameo playing against type as a kindly book shop owner. McCrory is also noteworthy in a touching, gently judged turn as Melies’ wife and muse Jeanne.
Scorsese has a cameo as a photographer and Selznick also appears briefly as a student.