Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Chloe Grace Christopher Lee, Jude Law
Through the 200,000 or so arresting frames that make 'Hugo' emerges a single mental image - that of Martin Scorsese rolling his eyes, and saying, “So you want 3D? Let me show you how 3D’s done.”
And so, we’re taken on this unbelievable journey where we’re ducking fire and teeth, and sliding down surfaces that jolt our bodies, all the time in awe of how these sequences were even conceived and shot. We’re pitched high up into the sky, and dragged down into a train station in 1931 Paris, where we make our first acquaintance with Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield).
There’s something about him that speaks of a sad life, of past happiness, of defiance, of bewilderment, of resistance. Everything about this film is stylised, from our introduction to Station Inspector Gustave Dasté (Sacha Baron Cohen) and the grumpy shopkeeper (Ben Kingsley) to the hunting down of orphans and vagabonds, and one is likely to be pleasantly lost for the first ten minutes.
The film absorbs one so completely that the carelessness of the dialogues and the paucity of characterisation appear only as self-mocking checkboxes. One finds oneself empathising with lines like, “Maybe that’s why broken machines make me so sad. They can’t do what they’re meant to do”, which then leads to the redundant, “Maybe it’s the same with people. If you lose your purpose, it’s like you’re broken.”
So, what is 'Hugo' about? Well, machines and dreams, and how they make each other possible. It’s also a cinema about cinema, a film that engages the latest technology to capture the oldest, a movie that harks back to a time when the filmmaker Georges Melies made fantastical silents, sitting down with his cast and crew to hand-paint each frame.
Scorsese’s interpretation of the period novel by Brian Selznick is loaded with themes and subtext, and you can take away what you want to. At one level, it’s about documenting, preserving, and celebrating the struggle that carried cinema from its early days to the current era — a journey that witnessed reels of film being turned into heels for shoes, as war-weary people shoved aside fantasy for footwear. At another, it’s about personal relationships, and how they affect individual emotions.
Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz (who plays his friend Isabelle) are quite brilliant, exercising the restraint that is so rare in child actors, and fitting into their characters seamlessly. The entire cast is outstanding, with actors grabbing their own moments in a film that is so over-the-top it can only be described as a spectacle.
Sacha Baron Cohen, underrated and underutilised in his career so far, has a lovely tragicomic role that reminded me of some of Hugh Laurie’s early skits. Most of the humour in the film rests in his bizarre conversations with various characters.
To say any more would be to spoil the film, because there’s a special surprise in the manner in which Scorsese has restored iconic works. When you walk out of the theatre, you walk out of a magical fable whose futuristic contraptions somehow make you reminisce about a time when your idea of bliss was an ice cream cone on a hot day.
The Verdict: 'Hugo' is one of those special experiences that can make you feel, for a few hours, that you’ve seen everything.