In an ethereal Paris between the world wars, a slight orphan boy lives a hidden life within the mechanisms of the clocks in a railway station. Surviving on whatever food he can steal, Hugo devotes himself to two tasks, one practical, one emotional: first, he winds and maintains the station’s clocks, to ensure that no-one trespasses on his domain; and second, he searches for scrap-metal cogs and wheels to repair a rusting model man, an automaton, which his father had once hoped to rebuild.
He is always in peril. The crippled stationmaster is forever on the hunt for thieving urchins, while the victims of Hugo’s need would like nothing better than to have yet another pest removed – and when the owner of a toy stall catches him in the act of stealing a wind-up mouse for its parts Hugo is forced to give up his most prized possession: his father’s notebook, filled with drawings of the automaton and its missing parts.
The toy maker is powerfully moved by what he sees, to sadness and to anger. He takes the notebook orders Hugo away, threatens to burn it, then claims that he has – but his adopted daughter, Isabelle, knows better. Sensing the adventure she has only read about in books, she sides with Hugo and helps him start to break down her father’s walls. In return he risks trusting her, and reveals the secret his world revolves around. And then a bunch of other things happen next – oooh, CINEMA!
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Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, based on the Brian Selznick’s portmanteau graphic/novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, is being lauded as a masterpiece. I found it hugely disappointing. As a visual spectacle it is an attractive experience, a richly realised world through which we are almost constantly on the move; though I’ve not read the book, a quick glance between the covers suggests it is very a faithful reproduction of Selznick’s gorgeous illustrations – two dimensional all, by the way. However, that quick glance can say very little about the story contained, and – for all Scorsese’s reputation as a lover of cinema – it is the storytelling that is most at fault in the film.
I was bored by Hugo. Despite the liveliness of the camera, and that of the world it almost ceaselessly glided through, I became deathly bored. In its opening sequence, sneaking with Hugo through his nooks and crannies, peeking out at the characters around him, we learn much about him and everyone else and everything is looking good – but almost the moment that the reigns were properly handed over from camera to script, everything went wrong. Not the first moment, fair enough; Hugo’s encounter with Papa Georges was tense and funny and emotional and, in terms of dialogue, terse and effective. But then…
There was a plodding theatricality about the two central performances that just absolutely hamstrung this film. When Asa Butterfield in the lead – or is that leaden – role had to put more than a handful of words together, it suddenly became clear that he could only do two things: read, and speak, but not act. Chloë Grace Moretz had the glassy delivery of a BBC child actor from some hypothetical drama circa 1970. All the performances in the first three Harry Potter films (that is, the ones I’ve seen) were just streets ahead of both of them. They only had the given script to work with, mind, and that overall was not good. The biggest laugh my girlfriend had was at my repeated sigh of dismay every time Isabelle opened her mouth during the second half of the film. The two hour film… I started squirming and fidgeting and fiddling with my chair and asking in a loud whisper when it was over – oh, we had great fun, when not looking at the screen.
The supporting cast is stuffed to bursting with star and character actors, and in many ways they are all fine. Christopher Lee’s sepulchral book-store owner, Ray Winstone’s drunkard, Emily Mortimer’s florist, Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths as the cafe owner and her potential paramour, they and more add living detail to the world – although there seem to be an awful lot of them, don’t there? We also have Michael Stuhlbarg as a tatty academic, and Jude Law as Hugo’s clock-loving father (in a cameo that, oddly, brought to my mind his plasticky turn as the sexual automaton in AI). Do we really need all these characters, popping up like tin ducks for a handful of minutes before disappearing again while an unseen mechanism slowly wheels them around for another brief turn?
Two supporters obviously stand out as key. Ben Kingsley, as the long-tormented Papa Georges, was for the most part good – at the beginning. Looking the part from the book to a tee, his early scenes were understated and believable, but as the story dips into the past his role collapsed into laborious monologues, delivered into a suddenly static camera, not to mention some seriously clumsy prosthetic makeup. Sacha Baron Cohen’s slapstick stationmaster on the other hand was never more than unfunny. In a Paris wholly diverged of French accents (a stylistic choice that never fails to annoy me when it crops up*) his squeaking Londoner’s tone was easily the most intrusive on reality; even the pathetic gendarme of ‘allo ‘allo would have been more convincing (compare for yourself: ‘allo et ‘ugo).
“Everyone” seems to have claimed that Hugo is a love letter from Scorsese to the medium of his heart, O Lovely Cinema. So what about the story? Because that is what it is all about, right? Story. Not chases through a train station or a clock tower, because that’s not Story. Not non-matching side characters, waiting to be successfully paired, because that’s not Story. Not a sequence of scenes, progressively slowing in pace and fascination, where nobody really changes even if their circumstances do, because that’s not Story. Sadly, that means Hugo is not Story.
And it’s dull. Dull, dull. dull. I dunno. Has everyone, Scorsese included, forgotten that there is more to cinema than a moving camera? You would have to say not, since Scorsese at least goes out of his way to give us clips of Méliès’ footage, and be they recreations or genuine they are are more magical in their brief seconds of static fantasy than everything else going on. Hugo may be a love letter, but a Dear Marty may be the only reply.
* like Enemy at the Gates – maybe it’s a Jude Law thing