Hugo (2011) – directed by Martin Scorsese

With Seema away in Vancouver I decided to take a weeks leave. Now I find myself in the enviable position of being free enough to catch up on some movie watching. This weekend saw me doss down on the couch with the kids, takeaways on our laps, lights dimmed, and Hugo on the screen. I’ve been meaning to see Hugo for a while due mainly to a curiosity I have rather than anything else. I was curious to see how Martin Scorsese would handle a children’s movie.

Hugo is set in 1930s Paris and is about the titular boy, Hugo, who loses his father to a fatal fire at the museum. Leaving only an intricately made automaton (a visual nod to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis) to remember him by, Hugo is taken in by his alcoholic uncle who puts him to work maintaining the clocks around the Paris train station. Things get interesting when he meets legendary French film pioneer Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), whom he discovers has a connection to his late father.

Technically this film is stunning. The sets, special effects, lighting, and cinematography were a genuine pleasure to watch with some wonderfully realised dream and flashback sequences that will live in my memory for a while yet. Yes, technically this is a superb film. However, I felt that the film did not quite know who its intended audience was. The story leant towards exploring the intrigue of a real life historical figure that would have gone right over the head of most children. I found myself explaining who Georges Méliès was to my 8 year old son to which he then understood the gravity of what he was watching. Yet on an adult level this film had me glued to the screen but wanting for something deeper. I found myself thirsting for more on Méliès and the psychological torment he was under. It was such an interesting premise that didn’t fully develop itself … it is after all a kids film. None-the-less, carrots were frustratingly dangled.

There were mixed performances from the cast. Hugo played by Asa Butterfield did an acceptable job, although his intensely piercing eyes and ever so slightly annoying facial ticks gave his acting efforts away. Surprisingly his opposite, the usually reliable Chloë Moretz, suffered from a similar problem. I was looking at a pair of actors, not two children from the 1930s. Perhaps getting the most from child actors is a rare Scorsese weakness. This problem was remedied to a degree with the class and screen presence of Ben Kingsley which came through in the abundant supply that we expect of him. Sacha Baron Cohen’s cruel station agent was unsettling to start, but like all good stream engines, chugged along nicely once the film gathered pace.

Yet with all this I found Hugo a curiously interesting film that explored the mechanical nature of our place on this planet. It started in somewhat disjointed tones but it came together well the end. I’m not convinced that childrens cinema is Scorsese’s forte. However, Hugo cleverly tiptoes over ground that is new to Scorsese. It makes me wonder if he bottled this and opened it with a solid audience target in mind we might have something quite enchanting.