Why in the hell would someone like me ever doubt Martin Scorsese? Someone who considers the director to be the very best living American filmmaker we have. Someone who has seen every single one of his films and accepts that even when he veers ever-so-slightly off course, there’s always something there. A grand catharsis, a worthy style, a stellar performance – something. With Hugo, I did what I rarely do: I judged a book by its cover.
The trailer for Hugo is uninspiring at best. It’s misguided, silly, and full of unneeded fluff. Having seen the film, I now understand why it misrepresents the inarticulable magic that Scorsese’s brilliant film contains. To spoil greatness in a two minute movie trailer would be, in my world, to commit an irreparable sin. Make no mistake, to see Hugo is to witness utter greatness. Is it to witness that a man of nearly 70 years of age has absolutely no inclination of lower his game any time soon, of which we couldn’t benefit more.
Hugo tells the story of young Hugo Cabret, an orphan in 1930s Paris who lives stealthy in the walls of a grand train station, fixing the station’s many clocks (a skill taught by his drunken, now absent uncle). If he’s caught by the station’s nasty inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) Hugo will surely be sent to an orphanage. So he bides his time, feigning for himself by nabbing a roll here, a few toys there, and so on.
The train station contains a slew of splendid characters that Hugo monitors on a regular basis. In addition to the inspector, there’s Lisette (Emily Mortimer) the quiet, lovely flower shop owner, Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee), the educated, helpful bookworm, and most importantly, Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), the cranky, weathered toy store owner.
When Hugo is caught stealing from Georges (for reasons I won’t explain) the two embark on a tumultuous relationship that tests them and their loved ones including Georges’ wife, Jeanne (Helen McCrory) and his goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz).
Now, I’ve literally described the initial 20 minutes of the film, and to divulge any further would be to do my readers a great disservice. Hugo is a film driven purely by magic; by self-reflecting awe of its craft. It takes you places so whimsical and unexpected, that to ruin it would be to impose many a sleepless night on myself.
So allow me to carefully skirt around the story by delivering a bit of hyperbolic praise.
Hugo, above all, is a film about movies. About watching them, living them; about feeling them. This may seem like a foreign concept to many, but for someone like me – someone who associates so much of their life to what they see in motion pictures – Hugo is nothing less than a Godsend.
The supporting cast, many of whom I haven’t mentioned, are all superb. Baron Cohen’s performance is so comically precise, it makes you wish you saw more of him. And while Moritmer, McCrory, Moretz all bring their mysterious charm to their respective roles, the film’s acting can primarily be judged by its two lead performances.
As Hugo, 14-year-old Asa Butterfield, is nothing short of marvelous. He’s in nearly every scene of the movie, most of which demand a fresh emotion. Even when we aren’t sure where the film is taking us, we trust Butterfield’s instincts (and those of his director) wholeheartedly.
And then there’s Ben Kingsley, who, as Georges, delivers one of the best performances of his impeccable career. It’s the best thing he’s done since Sexy Beast, rivaling his work in Schindler’s List and Gandhi (yes, he’s that good). Hugo is a profoundly moving film, and Kingsley’s performance is much to thank for this. A mere Oscar nomination seems paltry at best.
Martin Scorsese knows how to make damn fine films. His power over the craft of cinema is nearly unparalleled. He works mostly with the same crew (which includes, but is not limited to, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, production designer Dante Ferretti, costume designer Sandy Powell, and cinematographer Robert Richardson, who will all surely occupy a seat at this year’s Academy Awards), and often works off strong, bold scripts (this one by John Logan). I absolutely loved The Departed, but I proudly, boldly declare that Hugo is his finest achievement since Casino, possibly GoodFellas.
Rarely do I cry in movies, especially on first viewing. And I cannot remember for the life of me the last time I cried literal tears of joy from watching images being projected onto a large white screen. What Hugo does so masterfully is remind us why we love movies. As a lover of film, there’s really no greater gift than a film can bestow on us. See it, with your family, in 3D. It’s one of the very finest experiences (film or otherwise) that you’re likely to have this year. A