Scorsese’s Hugo a sweet tale told with grace
Even without all the clockwork, Hugo would have piqued my interest. Its roots are in a strange patch of ground where my skepticism about recent Martin Scorsese films snuggles up against my love for children’s books. Hugo, based on the book by Brian Selznick, is the story of an orphaned boy who lives in a train station that appears, in Dante Ferretti’s glorious production design, like a giant steampunk castle, full of secret passageways and clock-studded towers. This castle comes with a dragon of sorts: the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), a thin tyrant with a ferocious Doberman and a love for shipping parentless children off to the orphanage.
The train station in question is Paris’s Gare Montparnasse, the site of a famous train crash that appears, in a form, in the film — but Hugo coasts on the kind of movie magic that means nearly everyone in the film speaks British-accented English. Croissants and flowers abound, bringing together the adult characters, which include a florist (Emily Mortimer); a café owner (Frances de la Tour) and her suitor (Richard Griffiths); the steely proprietor of a toy stand (Ben Kingsley); and a bookseller (Christopher Lee), who looms, stern but kind, over his mountains of leather-bound tomes.
Wide-eyed, sure-footed Hugo (Asa Butterfield) keeps the clocks running. The job belonged to Hugo’s drunken uncle (Ray Winstone), who begrudgingly took the boy in after his clockmaker father’s untimely death, but Hugo is now on his own. He keeps busy winding the clocks and works to fix an automaton his father brought home, a gorgeous, eerie creation that Hugo knows would work if only he had the right key.
Hugo has the charm and grace of a silent movie — for the most part, screenwriter John Logan (The Aviator) favors context over exposition-heavy dialogue — and in fact the movie is nearly wordless for long, lovely minutes at the start, following Hugo in a glorious jaunt through the station. Soon, Hugo runs afoul of Kingsley’s sullen shop owner, who catches him trying to thieve a small wind-up mouse. A chain of small, extraordinary events pairs Hugo with the man’s goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), a passionate reader with an endearing tendency to use 50-cent words. Papa Georges, as she refers to Kingsley’s character, has buried away the past, but in their quest to solve the mystery of Hugo’s automaton, the stubborn kids dig it up.
Hugo’s story is a mystery, though the suspense lies in unexpected places. Certain outcomes and scenes will be obvious from the start to anyone familiar with a certain sort of warm-hearted, old-fashioned storytelling, but other turns — like the film’s grounding in a great love for French cinematic history — sneak in piece by piece. Hugo is in part a story about film, about art and passion; it uses film history as the scaffolding for a story that makes dramatic, beautiful use of advances in the medium. The mostly subtle, clever 3D isn’t just a way to stick a Doberman’s nose in your face; used wittily, carefully, it gives the movie a more immersive feel, and makes a quiet argument for using all the tools you have to tell your story as best you can.
Hugo also makes a glorious, idealistic case for twining passion and purpose, for making what you love into what you do, like the bookseller, or the director himself. Let go of what you love, or let someone take it from you, and you wind up sad and broken. Although sad and lonely, Hugo is far from broken, and like the rest of the characters in the train station, he’s looking for ways to connect, and for a place to be. What he finds, who he meets and the places he visits along the way — real, imagined or made of dreams come to life — make Hugo the sweetest, most gracefully told story I’ve seen so far this year.