Nov. 30, 2011 - Issue #841: Merry movie night
Scorsese, now in the winter of his career, has tapped into his own childlike passion for film with this late-period masterpiece. He doesn't just use 3D to sharpen the foreground and Hitchcock our eyes down staircases spiralling up to a giant clock; he uses the latest technology to honour cinema's first great wave of special-effects. In one astonishing image, fish swim just before our eyes in the bubbles of an aquarium while, beyond, the painted and pulleyed film-set of magician-turned-director George Méliès surges with the activity of actors playing nymphs surrounding Jupiter.
When Hugo (Asa Butterfield) tries to honour his dead father's memory by finding the key to an automaton that they had worked on, he runs into a toy-shop owner (Ben Kingsley) in the station and his goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). 1930s Paris and its café-culture come alive in the sepia-toned Montparnasse station, whirring with possibilities for friendship, love and art (pursued by the guard, Hugo flashes by Joyce, Dalí and Django Reinhardt). Film can conjure up dreams, but also nightmares, as when the Lumiere brothers' 1895 film of a train arriving at a station seems set to repeat itself but with Hugo trapped on the tracks. And while one war ended Méliès' fame, another is approaching (as a poster with the word "Vichy" reminds us).
Literature-loving Isabelle (who loves rolling out new words, such as "reprobate" and "clandestine") and film-loving Hugo bridge the storytelling mediums in their adventure (much as Brian Selznick fused word and image in the original picture-book). It's an adventure in a grand place but full of small moments. One of the most thrilling pursuits can simply be the discovery and opening of a secret shelf in a room where you're not supposed to be.
Silent-film sentiment resurfaces in tender episodes between a few people in the station. Hugo's variously a little Tramp, a tragicomic Keaton and a Lloyd-like lad hanging from a clock. Giant timepieces, statues and automata loom. But among falling snow, whirling dust motes and the ashes of burnt film, Hugo rekindles a love and soul in man-mended, hand-cranked machinery—Hugo sees the world as a great mechanism, so he must be a part that belongs, that can click into place; everyone must find their "purpose." One of Scorsese's purposes has been film-preservation—ensuring happy endings for some historic reels of celluloid, a material rapidly becoming a relic. To see such purpose turned into childlike wonder and adventure in Hugo is to behold the spellbinding alchemy—from stiff reality to moving magic—that's fired up cinema from its beginning.
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
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