Hugo

Martin Scorsese has been on an exceptional run of it lately. After the flawed-but-occasionally-interesting Gangs Of New York, he has set himself up as a maker of exceptionally well crafted mainstream films, normally starring Leonardo DiCaprio, but has also dipped into music-related projects as eclectic as the recent George Harrison documentary Living In The Material World and the Rolling Stones’ concert film Shine A Light. He even won the much overdue Best Director Oscar a few years ago for the excellent The Departed.

He’s certainly a man who can do whatever he wants, joining a select few including Spielberg, Nolan and Fincher in a club where they can make passion projects at ludicrous expense and know that their commercial success or failure is all but irrelevant to their personal prestige, as the artistic quality of the films is likely to be high. All the same, Hugo (renamed from the book’s title The Invention Of Hugo Cabret) is a surprising departure. His first foray into what appears to be children’s films, as well as his first 3D film, it suffers from a slow opening and unfortunate detours into irrelevance, but has a central theme and message that represents Scorsese at his most heartfelt and sincere. Quite who it’s aimed at is anyone’s guess.

It begins with much exposition. Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan living in a 1930s Paris train station after the death of his mechanic father (Jude Law, in a tiny cameo) and the disappearance of his drunken uncle (Ray Winstone, similar). Making a living of sorts by petty thieving and avoiding the station master (Sacha Baron Cohen), he seeks to mend a broken automaton that his father brought home from a museum. Unfortunately, his plans are thwarted when the miserable toyshop owner, Georges (Ben Kingsley) confiscates his notebook as a punishment for Hugo’s stealing. His only hope is to elicit the help of Georges’ goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Moretz) in an attempt to retrieve the notebook, repair the robot and see if, as he suspected, his father left him a last message.

The above summary doesn’t really do justice to what Scorsese’s grand aim is. It’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that Georges is in fact Georges Melies, founder of modern cinema but fallen on hard times when the film begins. Thus, about halfway through, Hugo turns into a wonderful and thrilling paean to the early days of silent cinema, conveying the fun and excitement of an unknown world in which anything seemed possible and everything could be achieved by hitherto unsuspected means. The film’s helped by excellent performances by Kingsley, Helen McCrory (as his wife and muse) and Michael Stuhlbarg (as the Melies-obsessed academic responsible for his eventual rehabilitation). It’s some of the most heartfelt and affecting stuff you’ll see at the cinema this year.

However, it bears comparatively little resemblance to the children’s film around it, which Scorsese doesn’t seem particularly interested in. Butterfield and Moretz are both fine, if increasingly peripheral, presences, but it’s the oddity of casting Baron Cohen, in a substantial role, that really mystifies. The character as portrayed is a wounded WW1 veteran with a leg support, a fierce dog and a penchant for sending unaccompanied children to the local asylum. Fine, a cartoonish Dickensian stock villain, to add some otherwise absent jeopardy. But there seems no rhyme or reason for his presence in the film, which bears no relation to the central plot, or his eventual rehabilitation as a sympathetic figure of sorts. It’s perfectly possible to see a Chris Cooper or a Ray Winstone doing very well in the role, as a bitter older man haunted by the memories of the trenches, but Baron Cohen’s arch and rather annoying performance doesn’t convince at all, meaning that all the various chase scenes, while visually impressive, are just so much padding.

So, a curate’s egg, then. But the good stuff is so good that one hesitates to describe this as a misstep, more as a fascinating curio that will always occupy a unique place in Scorsese’s extremely distinguished canon. Unless he makes Alvin And The Chipmunks: Chipfellas, that is.

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