Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Hugo

Any adult with ounce of sensitivity and a respect for the way life can toss and buffet our dreams will find something to latch onto in Martin Scorsese's Hugo, a film which finds the director in a reflective mood but not without playfulness. Hugo is being described as a "family" film but its concerns are so adult (the value of both work and of outlets for creative expression) that I wonder if many of the children who see it might only fully appreciate it with the passing of time. Hugo (Asa Butterfield, who looks like a miniature Elijah Wood and acts with great dignity) lives in a Paris train station sometime between the wars. Hugo's father (Jude Law) has died and other family have deserted him. His life is circumscribed by the needs of the station clocks he maintains and by what he can steal from the station's cafes and other vendors. One such vendor is a grumpy man known as "Papa Georges" (Ben Kingsley) who threatens to turn Hugo in for stealing until he reads the boy's notebook, which contain mysterious drawings of a mechanical man. With the help of Georges' godchild Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz in a wonderful performance), Hugo learns Georges identity after a detective mission that feels like something from a great children's book. Indeed, Scorsese and writer John Logan based Hugo on a young adult novel by Brian Selznick. It's not spoiling things to reveal that Georges is actually the early French filmmaker Georges Melies, whose work had been forgotten in Melies' own country. This subject matter is of course meat to Scorsese, who manages to toss in a generous helping of information on Melies as well as recreations of some of the director's work.

The look and feel of Hugo are among the best of any film this year. Scorsese presents the train station as Hugo perceives it, an outsized home filled with spy holes and escape hatches for when Hugo runs afoul of the station's police inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). The station is populated with a cast of eccentrics that don't get enough screen time, especially Frances de la Tour, Christopher Lee (NOT playing an evil wizard), and Emily Mortimer as a flower girl. Scorsese isn't afraid of letting the film sprawl, and while the early scenes may feel slow it's worth it for the resulting world that the film builds. The warm and fascinating Hugo has children at its center but a lifetime's full of love in its heart.

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