Sunday, 4 December 2011

The Historical Homages of Hugo Cabret

by Tom Dunn

At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking Hugo was just another children’s adventure film cast in the same mould as that of The Golden Compass. Set in a fantastical version of one of the world’s most lauded cities, and centring on a plucky vagrant child inheriting a clockwork wonder – all the while bathed in an amber and blue glow – it’s a comparison which is understandable but entirely wrong. Then again, given the disparity between the film’s subject matter and the studio’s targeted audience, options for promotion were limited. For, despite a thoroughly generic marketing campaign, Hugo is definitely not your typical kid’s fare, instead functioning as something of a companion piece to Scorsese’s biopic on Howard Hughes, The Aviator. Hugo’s adventure catalyses a two hour tribute to the genius of both Georges Melies and early 20th century cinema at large, its orange and cyan palette mirroring that nostalgic world DiCaprio and Blanchett were previously cast in as pioneers of the cinematic. Revelling in the transformative magic behind the artisan craft of film, Scorsese’s latest uses the fantastic to bolster the power of cinema as a truly transcendent storytelling medium.

That the film does this whilst also straddling a serviceable children’s adventure is remarkable – though quite how many kids will enjoy little boy Hugo’s hands on education in early cinema is nevertheless debatable. Based on Brian Selznick’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the story of Hugo is, at its core, the story of George Melies’ career, rendered through the eyes of a young orphan attempting to find his place in the world. Hugo (Asa Butterfield), protégé of his clockmaker father, wanders the inner corridors of a Paris railway station, keeping the clocks running so that the world of the station might continue to exist as it should be. Each day, Hugo makes sure to spy on the station’s regulars, seeing them endeavour about their little coordinated lives whilst he must remain an outsider, hoping for answers and purpose in the mending of a broken automaton his father (Jude Law) discovered shortly before his death. He attempts to fix the clockwork robot by pilfering wind-up toys from the stall of one Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), a quiet old man whose history quickly becomes bound up with that of Hugo through the mystery of the robot and its connection to Georges’ goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Moretz).

Whilst this plot ensures we care for Hugo, and in turn Papa Georges, it makes no attempts to hide its meta-fictional purposes, functioning as a springboard instead for a smorgasbord of silent cinema delights. Whilst the world of Georges Melies quickly takes centre stage, through growing references to Le Voyage dans la Lune and other works by the director, Scorsese makes sure to pay tribute to all and sundry, from the Lumiere Brothers, past Edwin S. Porter all the way to Fritz Lang. Some of these references are overt, with extracts from films frequently finding their way into the story. Others, such as a rather fantastic homage to Metropolis when Isabelle struggles to keep up with Hugo in the station, are less so. This is a cinephile’s film, make no mistake, elevated into something broader through its sincere appraisal of man’s ability to make lofty dreams a reality through the most mundane of materials. Whilst film lovers might appreciate the attention to detail, the real joy perhaps comes from this overarching theme of the spectator seeing the magic in the machinery.

Perhaps the only true blot on the film is the somewhat incongruous presence of semi-antagonist Inspector Gustav, an obsessive orphan catcher who seems to exist solely to provide the film with some dramatic tension when the climax requires it. Baron Cohen, however, works gamely with the material, adding to a cast that is always strong – Moretz and Kingsley are on usual form, and Butterfield reveals that his recent casting as Ender Wiggin for the Ender’s Game adaptation is an assured one.

 Hugo is a singular film, standing apart from other tributes to early cinema such as La Antena and the more recent The Artist by avoiding outright pastiche, instead weaving its tribute through a family film that blooms into outright admiration in time for its final encore. It’s a sincere, joyous dialogue on the power of art that reminds us why we love going to the movies. So go.