Direction: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz
At long last, it has made it to our multiplexes. And in case you are wondering if it has been worth the wait, the answer is a resounding yes.
Besides crafting some of contemporary cinema’s most powerful dramas (Raging Bull, GoodFellas, The Departed, to cite only three titles), Martin Scorsese has constantly campaigned for the cause of film preservation and restoration.
Clearly, then, the adaptation of the 2007 illustrated novel by Brian Selznick is a labour of love for the Italian-American maestro. A valentine to silent cinema and its first true wizard Georges Melies, Hugo is everything that the recently released The Artist isn’t —dynamic, heartfelt and suffused with an unabashed love of the medium.
In a bold gamble which Melies himself would likely have approved, the homage to the optical effects pioneer is filmed in 3D. Happily, the deployment of the third dimension actually enhances the overall impact.
Set almost entirely in a Paris train station circa 1931, wondrously recreated by production designer Dante Ferretti, the focus is on the titular orphan (Butterfield) who ekes out a living maintaining the station’s several hand-cranked clocks.
The young lad’s secretive way of life is jeopardised when he encounters a toy shop proprietor named Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley, suitably stern). It turns out that the elderly man is none other than Melies, the illusionist-turned-founding father of fantasy films (A Trip to the Moon, 1902).
The mechanically inclined boy also meets Georges’s bookish goddaughter (Moretz). They (and the viewer) are treated to extracts from silent classics, Melies's own extant shorts as also the Harold Lloyd’s comedy Safety Last (1923) which appropriately features a clock-hanging climax.
The film’s final act resurrects the images and techniques developed by Melies at the dawn of cinema to make more than 500 movies. The A-list supporting cast includes Jude Law as Hugo’s deceased clockmaker father. The 89-year-old Christopher Lee shows up as a benevolent bookseller. Sacha Baron Cohen displays a gift for physical comedy in the role of the station inspector intent on nabbing loitering children when he isn't busy attempting to woo the pretty flower seller (Emily Mortimer).
A cinephilic myth come to life, Hugo is a truly inspiring experience.