The trailer for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo promised the worst. Its focus on the pratfalls of Sacha Baron Cohen’s station inspector (as much Allo’ Allo’s Officer Crabtree as Inspector Clouseau) and his comedy canine companion, in pursuit of the eponymous orphaned clockmaker’s boy through a vividly realised Paris train station, made one wonder if Scorsese had in fact spent his pre-production period studying the mechanics of the Home Alone franchise rather than those of the pioneers of early cinema promised in reports from the film’s New York Film Festival work-in-progress unveiling last month. Aside from the very opening moments; a dazzlingly dexterous, vertiginous swoop from high above the snow-capped Paris skyline, down into a continuous track through the station, taking in a host of secondary characters only to finally settle on toymaker Ben Kingsley’s CGeye, glinting with the reflection of the station clock, in the bowels of which Hugo makes his home; the opening twenty minutes or so that follow do little to dispel the worries instilled by the film’s promotional material.
Thankfully though, the broadly comedic scenes centring around Baron Cohen which make up the meat of the trailer also constitute little more than those first twenty minutes of the film itself. As the main thrust of the narrative begins to kick in with a flashback to the discovery of an unwanted clockwork automaton, rescued from a museum scrap heap by Hugo’s father (Jude Law), Baron Cohen and the awkwardly paced slapstick (more Chris Columbus than Keystone) give way to a melancholic tone, as keenly felt in the blank, downward gaze of the automaton as in the arrival of Hugo’s uncle (Ray Winstone) with the news of his father's death. Caught red-handed as he steals mechanical parts to bring his pet project back to life, in the belief that it will deliver a message from his father, Hugo sets to work in the station toyshop, unaware that the irascible toymaker and his bookish goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Moretz) may hold more than just the key to the automaton’s secrets.
If initially Hugo feels as though Scorsese is channelling Steven Spielberg in its early thematic preoccupations (issues of abandonment, its child’s-eye perspective and sombre, yearning tone, not to mention the automaton itself, bring to mind his A.I. Artificial Intelligence above all else), it’s not long before a sneaky trip to a cinema provides the first taste of where this most ardent of cinephiles is leading us; it’s Ben Kingsley’s Papa Georges who later declares, “If you’ve ever wondered where your dreams come from, you look around; this is where they’re made”, but the words belong to Scorsese. If in a set-piece or two, Spielberg’s assured touch may not have gone amiss, we can be grateful for the lack of mawkish sentimentality his presence would have all but assured. In place of which, Scorsese uses his young leads as proxies to take us on a journey back to the dawn of cinema, utilizing the latest in digital technology to recreate the sense of wonder instilled when a moving image first flickered across a screen, when film and magic were indistinguishable.
Hugo represents the strongest utilization of 3D yet to be seen on the big screen, its impact felt as keenly for emotional and character driven effect as in its more spectacular elements. In recreating such pioneering moments in cinema history as the Lumiere Brothers’ first screenings of their 1895 film L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat to an audience ducking for cover as the train pulls towards the screen, Scorsese goes some way to replicating the effect through the use of the added dimension, even more so during a dream sequence in which a train jumps its tracks and careers through the station towards the camera. From Isabelle’s first cinema trip to see Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last (1923), to their discovery of Papa Georges’ secret through a book on early cinema, brought to life in an impassioned montage sequence of moments from cinema’s dawning years, Scorsese restores the original sense of wonder to such iconically embedded images; as the young leads gaze upon their discovery for the first time, we see with their eyes, share their delight, transported back to our own first cinematic experiences, a director’s reverence and nostalgia for the birth of his art form manifesting itself in this audience member with wide-eyed rapture and audible gasps.
Seeing the timely new restoration of Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902) at this year’s London Film Festival added an even greater resonance to the scenes in Hugo detailing its creation, and one can only hope that rumoured plans to screen the fourteen minute short alongside Scorsese’s feature come to fruition. Shivers ran down my spine as we were transported to Méliès’ glass studio, witness to the first cinematic magician’s effects work, the painstaking process of hand painting each frame and the heartbreaking reality that “time hasn’t been kind to old movies”, underlining quite how essential Scorsese’s own remarkable work has been towards film preservation and conservation through his Film Foundation.
If Hugo suffers somewhat by a degree of inconsistency in the overall rhythm of its narrative, with perhaps one too many a digression to subsidiary characters, it ultimately matters little come the second hour. In looking back at those who first made that first flicker of light on the wall so much brighter, Scorsese has delivered both a dazzling technical marvel and a film straight from the heart; one that by the stunning closing sequence, had completely melted mine.