HUGO is a film about books, movies, magic and clockwork. And work — life’s work.
It’s my new favourite use of 3D. It revives the 2-strip Technicolor look that was the best thing about THE AVIATOR, and returns to the long take aesthetic which informed Scorsese’s work before the rock ‘n’ roll fast-cutting of THE DEPARTED and SHINE A LIGHT. It’s set in a giant artificial period world like GANGS OF NEW YORK, and is at times more in love with that world than with its own story, just like the earlier film, but at least in this case the foreground story intrigues for the great bulk of the film.
Ben Kingsley returns from SHUTTER ISLAND, Ray Winstone returns from THE DEPARTED, and Jude Law returns from THE AVIATOR, none of which was my favourite Scorsese by a long way, but they’re good here, and Kingsley is T-riffic. The kids, Asa Butterfield and Chloe Moretz, are wonderful.
Old-timers! Christopher Lee, Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour. Frances was big on British TV in the seventies, starring alongside Leonard Rossiter (BARRY LYNDON) in a seminal sitcom called Rising Damp. Then she vanished. I presume she’s just changed her agent, because suddenly she’s in Tim Burton and Scorsese films. The business with the supporting players is lightly charming but not quite effective… they inhabit little REAR WINDOW scenarios of their own, but aren’t tied to the hero’s POV enough so they don’t seem germane. Although I like Kristin Thompson’s theory here that the sub-plots’ simplicity recalls early films of the Melies era.
Midway, Chloe M’s character sums up the plot: “It’s a terribly long story with a great many circumlocutions.” She’s right! Not everybody enjoys that, especially when the plot motor and pay-off are kind of slight. Fiona saw the film with our friends the Browns and Marvelous Mary, who really hated it. Since the Browns work in the film biz, I think their anger was focussed on huge resources being lavished on a movie with such a slight spine. Imagine little Asa Butterfield wearing a giant Transformers robot armature. They had similar doubts about GANGS OF NEW YORK, which has a really rotten plot and a similarly sumptuous environment (had Scorsese been allowed to follow the path of FELLINI SATYRICON and dispensed with narrative, what amovie that could have been!). Fiona enjoyed the visuals, completely, but complained of the script.
She’s basically right, I have to admit. The dialogue is mostly flat — there are no memorable lines except those that actors invigorate with a lot of effort (Chloe Moretz is especially good at this and Kingsley is compelling as always) The plot is thin and the happy pay-off arrives for no entirely convincing reason. Scorsese has never been a fan of plot, preferring the loose, baggy structure of MEAN STREETS or the purely character-driven narratives of TAXI DRIVER and RAGING BULL. But those latter films are extremely tight, with everything happening because of who the people are — there’s no chance or contrivance or hidden revelations to provide artificial twists or accelerations. The apparent messiness of MEAN STREETS is in keeping with its imitation of messy, unstructured life. This is Scorsese’s first mystery, and the questions intrigue, but not every question has a satisfactory answer — I kind of expected some news about the hero’s father and uncle, but it turns out they weren’t part of the mystery. Spectacular dream sequences add pyrotechnics but don’t advance the story, which seems to be building to something bigger… and Logan really isn’t very good at building gags or action sequence, so things like the clock-hanging sequence tend to just fizzle out rather than building to a thrilling climax with developments and reversals and all that good stuff…
But 90% of the time, the plot had a fascinating effect on the children in the audience — the narrative purpose of a scene could be very slight, but as long as it was there, they sat hypnotized. You instantly got fidgeting when the scene turned out to be just about some kind of character moment. But they sat there for two hours and the fidgeting only happened for about four instances of ten seconds apiece. I contrasted this with the kid at TINTIN who tried to climb over the seat backs in front of her. There’s a revelation here about pacing and children — children’s movies have been hyperkinetic for ages, and crammed in all the stuff they assume kids like — farting and monsters and pop music — and it turns out that an effect of intense concentration by the filmmaker can produce the same thing in a young audience. Scorsese may have saved a generation of parents from ever having to suffer through ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: CHIPWRECKED. If more filmmakers learn from the rhythms of HUGO, things could be very different.
As the Self-Styled Siren says in her loving review, this is glorious 3D, and likely to win over even those who generally dislike it. What excites me is that we’re actually learning more about how to use the gimmick, something that barely happened in the 50s. In HUGO, 3D discovers the power of the close-up. Seemingly, TANGLED achieves some of this, but I’ve only seen it flat, on BluRay (it’s GOOD). Here, there’s a shot of Sacha Baron Cohen leaning slowly in, filmed from a low angle, which has a funny and ominous and freaky effect. A track-in on Ben Kingsley near the end is magisterial. Those faces hover there, giant and blimplike, eerie in the way the Kingdom of Shadows was eerie to the earliest cinema-goers. The reference to the first audience’s panicked reaction to the Lumiere’s TRAIN ARRIVING AT A STATION ties it all together neatly. 3D isn’t an add-on, here, it’s part of the story, part of the film’s essence. And the drifting snowflakes and cinders are beautiful, the aerial perspectives of the station are spectacular, and every frame seems to bristle with potential discoveries. Robert Richardson’s partnership with Scorsese as DoP is something to be grateful for for two reasons: his luminous lensing enhances Scorsese’s films, and it keeps him out of the clutches of Oliver Stone.
I recalled a line from Our Town: “Oh, I can’t look at everything hard enough!”