Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is the story of the titular orphan (the gravely composed Asa Butterfield) beset by a life-altering mystery, but the first sounds that come at us are the ticking of clocks and the chugging of faraway trains, and even our first glimpse of Hugo is partial – he’s hidden behind a giant clock. This favouring of machines over men may not be entirely accidental: Hugo is Scorsese’s fetishistic ode to the gears and sprockets that grind away and make magic. For older generations, trains must have seemed a conjurer’s sleight of hand – whoever knew you could be whisked away to other lands so expressly? In today’s times, though, magic comes from the movies, which transport us, like trains, to new worlds (and of course, one of the earliest and most famous shorts by the Lumière brothers featured a train barreling towards a bewildered audience, to whom it must have seemed the most realistic of illusions).
Hugo – whose arrival is often heralded by smoke, as if he himself were some sort of illusion – lives amidst machines in a Parisian train station, and his only “companion” is an automaton. He even wakes up from a dream, in a wittily staged sequence, to discover that his innards have been replaced by gears and sprockets. Hugo’s father (played, in a flashback, by a twinkling Jude Law) is a clockmaker – in other words, he makes machines that tell the time. He speaks to his son about the magicians of his boyhood, whose “secret was always in the clockwork.” Hugo comes to look upon the curmudgeonly Papa Georges (an uncharacteristically starchy Ben Kingsley), the old man who runs a toy store (more machines), as a machine that needs to be fixed, as if happiness were merely the by-product of wrenching a lever. And the inspector at the station (Sacha Baron Cohen, employing his gangliness to superb comic effect), says, at the end, “I am now a fully functional man.” He has, like a faulty machine, been repaired.
Méliès, as you may have heard, is really film pioneer Georges Méliès, who started out as a stage magician and went on to make magic in another medium. Hugo is really his story, and by the end of this dreamily paced film, you may wonder why Scorsese didn’t simply cut to the bone and make a biopic about the man (instead of lingering over the narrative meat from Brian Selznick’s book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret). The final moments of Hugo are its most vibrant, most poignant, as we settle down to Scorsese’s loving retelling of a mostly forgotten chapter of film history (so loving that there’s even a felicitation ceremony). This is what we feel Scorsese was after all along, what he was hinting at from the beginning, with all those nods to Douglas Fairbanks, Max Linder, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd (whose most famous stunt is reenacted by Hugo in similarly dire circumstances). Why drag a little boy into this? Which child, in the audience for this supposedly family-friendly film, is going to respond to veiled pleas about film preservation?
Hugo, befitting its obsession with machinery, is first and foremost a technical triumph. The train station is a labyrinthine set, allowing for intricate vertical and horizontal camera movements, and one of the earliest shots – where we, with our 3-D glasses, swoop in on the exterior of the station and glide down the platform between two trains – is a dizzying rush. Scorsese uses 3-D beautifully, almost invisibly, training towards us flakes of snow, the arm of a guitar, and the snout of a determined Doberman. The images aren’t assaultive but assimilative. But till we get to the Méliès story, there’s nothing else but this imagery, and after a while, we begin to shift in our seats. Scorsese has commissioned a gentle score, with barely any crescendos (imagine the exact opposite of a present-day John Williams soundtrack; that’s what Howard Shore accomplishes here), and while the restraint is refreshing, it also lulls the film into a slow stupor – it’s as if things were happening and yet nothing of note was taking place.
And for the first time since Kundun, a Scorsese film comes without a strong signature. Hugo, instead, reminds you of bits and pieces of the films of others – like Steven Spielberg (who confined the actions of The Terminal to an airport and its quirky denizens; there’s also the yearning-for-a-parent angle), George Lucas (whose machine obsessions are well documented; and scenes of Hugo with the automaton may remind you of the young Anakin Skywalker putting together C-3PO), Giuseppe Tornatore (especially the sentimental and movie-mad climax of Cinema Paradiso), and, at a stretch, even Orson Welles (what is the missing heart-shaped key, which will unlock the automaton’s mysteries, if not this detective story’s Rosebud?). Hugo is filled with lovely performances, but a lot of good actors (Emily Mortimer, Ray Winstone, Christopher Lee with a pince-nez) simply aren’t given anything to do. Hugo tells us, at one point, that all machines have a purpose. Clocks tell us the time. Trains take us places. And we wonder what the purpose of Scorsese’s gleaming machine is: engage us with an entertaining story, or coddle his pet passions?
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