Cinema is a magnificent, powerful art form. From humble beginnings as a vaudeville attraction to the capitalist Hollywood juggernaut of today, cinema arguably has its greatest effect on children. Even in the 21st Century, despite children being exposed to moving pictures from a young age - from toddlers being entertained by exasperated young parents with video clips on their iPhones, to five year olds gorging on a nutrition-free diet of Spongebob Squarepants - children can be captivated by a good movie. There's something about the ritual of it all. Leaving one's house to travel to a darkened hall dedicated to a specific film, surrounded by other viewers and hopefully watching in hushed reverent whispers is a far cry from the noisy cacophony of the energy-saving lightbulb illuminated living room that houses the TV.
As we get older, cinema can still have that magical appeal, but in a cynical modern age it's rewardingly complex films like Inception and the forthcoming Prometheus that captivate us. Rarely do we see a true family movie anymore, except perhaps for the animated offerings from Pixar. Hugo however, bucks that trend to offer a true gem that crosses the generations - both of its audience and its characters. The film is essentially the titular boy's quest for understanding and acceptance, but it becomes a love letter to cinema as a whole.
Adapted from Brian Selznick's novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by John Logan (co-writer for the next Bond film, Skyfall), the film is itself an incredible curiosity in that it is directed by Martin Scorsese, a director renowned for his darker movies, such as Taxi Driver, Goodfellas and Gangs Of New York. This air of mystique seems to add something to a movie that is built on curiosity. I was constantly reminded that whilst this family film may have been marketed in a similar vein to A Night At The Museum, the sheer attention to detail on offer comes from having a great filmmaker at the helm.
The movie opens with a match cut from the insides of a clock to the busy streets of Paris. The motif of things either running like clockwork or being broken and abandoned are a key part of the narrative and straight away Scorcese brings attention to that. Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is an abandoned young boy, living in the Montparnasse railway station in Paris. A series of tragedies have befallen him, yet he still tends to the clocks in the station, keeping them wound and working. His prize possessions are a broken automaton that his late father (Jude Law) found whilst working in a museum and his father's notebook of diagrams and sketches of the broken machine detailing his attempts to fix it. His mother died at a young age and his father perished in a fire, leaving him with his uncle (Ray Winstone), a drunk employed to live and work in the train station tending the clocks. Eventually his uncle disappears, leaving Hugo to carry on the maintenance of the station's timepieces by himself.
Hugo has his own quest though. He steals clockwork pieces from a toyshop in an attempt to fix the automaton, which he believes contains a message from his father. In doing so, he crosses paths with the furious shopkeeper (Sir Ben Kingsely) who angrily confiscates the notebook. And so Hugo is swept along in his journey to regain the notebook and complete his quest, befriending the shopkeeper's orphaned goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) in whom he finds a kindred spirit. Isabelle introduces Hugo to the magic of books and he in turn takes her to see her first film. Films were something Hugo and his father enjoyed together...
Hugo: My father took me to the movies all the time. He told me about the first one he ever saw. He went into a dark room and on a white screen saw a rocket fly into the eye of the man in the moon. It went straight in.
Hugo: He told me it was like seeing his dreams in the middle of the day.
Hugo: The movies were our special place where we could go and watch something. We didn't miss Mum so much.
Together the children find the parts needed to fix the automaton, but instead of writing a message from his father, it draws a picture - of the man in the moon with a rocket in his eye. It signs the picture with Isabelle's godfather's name, Georges Méliès. From a book on film history, they discover that he was once a great filmmaker, responsible for the movie that first captivated Hugo's father's imagination. But he was forgotten after the war and most of his films were melted down for their cellulose, leaving him heartbroken and bitter. Tracking down the book's author, they discover he still has a copy of Le voyage dans la lune, leading them to eventually show it to a tearful Méliès.
The film is a masterclass in mise-en-scene, in particular I was struck by the blue palette that continues throughout the film, from the night sky of Paris through to blue clothing such as Isabelle's beret, the trim on Hugo's jumper and the Station Inspector's uniform. In art the colour blue often signifies a quest for knowledge which certainly fits Hugo. Of course, it also represents depression or "the blues", which is fitting as most of the characters are in some way broken and miserable as the story begins.
Some could say that the coincidence of Hugo and Méliès' stories coming together is trite. I felt it worked like magical clockwork. The film blends historical events with a sense of curiosity that pays tribute to the power of cinema. Georges Méliès was a filmmaker in the early Twentieth Century and the films that you see within the film are all real films. He was one of the first fantasy, science fiction and horror filmmakers, using a combination of sets, costume and magic tricks alongside an early understanding of editing to capture his ideas on film. At one point he built his own film studio and he directed over five hundred films, though many were lost as the war came and he was eventually driven out of business. He disappeared from public life and did indeed become a toyseller at the Montparnasse station in Paris. This is all covered in the film by an enchanting flashback, narrated by Kingsley.
Hugo truly is a love letter to the roots of cinema and one the first filmmakers to see that he could use this new medium to enchant his audience. Scorsese has followed in Méliès' footsteps and created a movie that both educates and delights. Of course some of the details have been changed to fit the narrative - Méliès' wife at the time he was a shopkeeper was his second wife, who had not been present during his filmmaking career - his first wife sadly died in 1913. And although he was eventually rediscovered, it was not by a young boy called Hugo, but by French film critics and journalists.
Regardless, Méliès was eventually awarded the Légion d'honneur and today his contribution to cinema is acknowledged by film historians. Hugo brings all of this to life and for that I am truly grateful. Even Sacha Baron Cohen can't ruin this film!
Ben Fardon has fond memories of A-Level Film Studies...