Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Hugo

Academy Award Nominations: 11
  • Best Picture
  • Best Director (Martin Scorsese)
  • Best Adapted Screenplay (John Logan)
  • Best Cinematography (Robert Richardson)
  • Best Original Score (Howard Shore)
  • Best Art Direction (Production Design: Dante Ferretti, Set Decoration: Francseca Lo Schiavo)
  • Best Costume Design (Sandy Powell)
  • Best Visual Effects (Robert Legato, Joss Williams, Ben Grossman and Alex Henning)
  • Best Editing (Thelma Schoonmaker)
  • Best Sound Editing (Philip Stockton and Eugene Gearty)
  • Best Sound Mixing (Tom Fleischman and John Midgley)

Hugo Cabret is an young boy who lives inside the walls of a busy Parisian train station, maintaining the station's many clocks in the absence of his alcoholic uncle, the man who took him in after his father dies in an accident. Hanging on to the last remnant of his father's memory, he becomes obsessed with fixing an automaton clockwork robot in the hopes it may contain a message from his father. However, to fix it, he needs gears and springs, things which can be found at only one of the train station's many shops; A small, unassuming shop selling toys, run by an unassuming old man. There's also the matter of the lock with the heart-shaped key...

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, or 'Hugo' (in 3D!), is a whimsical tale about a young boy's extraordinary adventures in a romanticised 1930's Paris, with homelessness, thievery and the history of cinema all running themes in the background. You see, if you look at this story through certain aspects of its plot, you can see why the director of films like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Goodfellas chose to bring this to the big screen himself. However, to be blunt, it seems an extraordinary adventure of Scorsese's own making to create his first ever family-friendly film at this point in his career, especially given his recent tremendous successes with The Departed and Shutter Island, two films with dark themes more suited to his earlier work. But then maybe such a shift in tactics from such a legendary director can surely only mean that he's confident he can do it justice, no? Well, as strange as it is, he does. Kind of.

Hugo is troubling me even as I write this, because although it is a great film, and there are some really great moments of dialogue or cinematography or a combination of the two, that's just it. There are some great MOMENTS. Though there are flashes of brilliance, it is overall a rather generic children's adventure film with no real artistic flourishes other than those enforced by the 3D medium in which it was shot, and that's a real crime. Over the years, Scorsese has established his own visual style with certain shots and themes becoming his trademarks, and they just aren't on display here. That's not to say he's not completely absent from proceedings, there is one moment which is Scorsese through and through: In the pre-title scene, the action follows the young Hugo as he weaves his way through the narrow walls of the train station, and we as the audience follow him all the way through in a single, smooth tracking shot which is reminiscent of the 'Copacabana Shot' from Goodfellas. Other than that, the film is generic, it could have been done by anyone. Not to naysay a directing legend, and a personal hero of mine, but the film left me feeling pretty gutted and somewhat disappointed that there wasn't more Scorsese on display.

That's not to say that is not entertaining because it certainly is. It's two hours of good, clean, family fun with enough adventure and drama running through it to keep an audience entertained, which is down to the performances of the two young actors. Asa Butterfield is great as Hugo, playing his role of the young boy forced to grown up too soon well, bringing a maturity and sadness to his performance. Also, Chloe Moretz is good as Isabelle, Hugo's young companion, believably another young girl with adult sensibilities. You may not that both kids play the roles with maturity, another sign that Scorsese is going outside his comfort zone in this film and is directing a cast of children for the first time, treating them like adults and producing a performance akin to this. Other than that, it's great to see Sir Ben Kingsley in a non-comical, leading role and performing well in it as the master Georges Melies. Note to Hollywood: Sir Ben Kingsley can still act, don't merely reduce him to a cameo where he does nothing but mugs and speaks in an accent. Sacha Baron Cohen, also, does well as the bumbling train station inspector, delivering a near-Clouseau like performance which entertains and delivers heart and warmth to his cold character.

Looking at the film by itself, it's really well done. The Paris train station set was a grand construction demanded by Scorsese, and looking at it on screen, you can see why. Had this film been shot in a standard studio with different sets on a smaller scale, the grandiose feeling of the set would not have been translated to screen. Thankfully, the scale of the train station comes across, and it's actually enhanced by the inclusion of the 3D technology, creating a depth and scale that only 3D could possibly create. The attention to detail in the props and sets is well worth noting as well, as nothing seems out of place or seems to have been an after thought, it seems clear that everything on screen has been carefully selected and placed to add to the on-screen illusion. The plot never drags its feet either, another case of each line being carefully selected and placed into the script to further the story, and thus the story continues at a steady pace throughout, never feeling like the two hours you'll spend watching it. In truth, the film feels as if it could twice the length and you still wouldn't notice, and you probably wouldn't care, given how beautifully the film's been shot, it's a real treat to watch, especially on a big screen.

Overall, there are good and bad things about this film, and by no means is this a bad film, but it just feels so disappointingly generic. It's good that Scorsese has explored other territory at this point in his film making career after achieving so much greatness previously, but the genre, plot and themes are so distinctly unsuited to the director that it neutralises any flourishes he might have been able to add. You can certainly see why he took on this film though; in amongst the story of the lost child finding answers, the film is the story of a long held love affair with cinema, an ode to the magic and legacy of Georges Melies, it's an ode to the birth and artform of cinema, and this at least is done wonderfully. The story is told well, the film doesn't drag, and surprisingly makes good use of the 3D technology, but then, if a master like Martin is using 3D cameras, he's not going to let anything slide. He does get some great performances out of his cast, and the cinematography is fantastic, as are the sets and details amongst the mise-en-scene. I really don't have a problem with Hugo as a film. I just have a problem with it being a Scorsese film.

Rating: ***1/2

Hugo was released on the 2nd December 2011 and is no longer being shown in cinemas.