Film review: HUGO from Built for Speed

Martin Scorsese’s latest film Hugo is a weird mix of tween romance, gadget film, Oliver style orphan drama, slapstick comedy, cinema nostalgia and of course (being a Scorsese film) a redemption story.  This incongruous mix could have been a huge mess (some parts certainly fail to fire) but with Scorsese’s sure hand it holds together and offers something for kids and cranky old film buffs alike.

Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is a 12 year old orphan who lives in the huge clock housing behind the walls of a Paris railway station in the 1930’s.  Alone in the world, Hugo has one particularly precious remnant of his late Father (Jude Law), an automaton or mechanical man which he discovers has mysterious links to the station’s grumpy toy shop owner Papa George (Ben Kingsley) and to a lost world of pioneering silent cinema.

A heart-warming family-oriented film, Hugo at times seems more Spielberg than Scorsese but in scenes where Spielberg might have poured on the cheese, Marty thankfully controls himself.

While the subject matter and look of this film are very different for Scorsese, familiar elements sneak in such as a lengthy tracking shot through the railway station that opens the film.  Hugo’s visual style is occasionally a problem though.  The extensive use of CGI and 3D, while at times creating stunning shots such as the aerial views of Paris, gives the film an artificiality which prevents us from becoming immersed in its world or from connecting emotionally with its characters.

The performances aren’t always gripping either. In the film’s central role, Asa Butterfield just doesn’t involve us emotionally the way Hugo should.  This is particularly apparent in the scenes where Hugo laments his loneliness as an orphan, these were supposed to be heartbreaking but end up being forced and unconvincing. His relationship with Papa George’s grand-daughter Chloe Moretz also isn’t as engaging as is should have been.  Some viewers might also have trouble with Sacha Baron Cohen’s bumbling Clouseau-like station inspector who relentlessly pursues Hugo; Cohen’s kind of funny but a bit over the top.

Fortunately these qualms detract little from the film’s triumphant celebration of the magic of cinema and of one real life silent film director.  Some reviewers have named this director but I think it’s better to go in to the film not knowing this.  Much of the film’s second half is spent recalling the magical images from this director’s movies.  Some of these scenes are actual footage while some have been reconstructed for the film. Few will resist the temptation to chase up this director’s films afterwards.

Hugo, is lacklustre at times but well worth staying with for its homage to one of cinema’s great illusionists.

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