A beautiful story, masterfully filmed

Main Cast: Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen

Director: Martin Scorsese

At the end of Hugo, I walked out of the theater feeling like a teenager after his first kiss: dazed, tingling from what just happened, and deeply, viscerally happy.  Martin Scorsese’s lovely cinematic version of Brian Selznick’s award-winning novel The Adventures of Hugo Cabret is the best movie I’ve seen in a long, long time.

Mr. Scorsese’s film is a faithful adaptation that brilliantly captures the dreamy steampunk atmosphere of Selznick’s illustrated novel,and in the process elevates 3D film technology to something that enhances, rather than detracts from the cinematic experience.  At their most successful, the 3D effects in Hugo are subtle and understated: no gimmicky explosions or sudden protruding objects that cause the viewer to recoil in his seat; instead, Scorsese uses shimmering snowflakes and dust motes to create a palpable atmospheric presence that pulls his audience into the scene.

One of the big challenges in translating Hugo to the screen is its necessary reliance on a young boy as its central figure.  Hugo lives in the walls of a 1930’s Paris train station – an orphan who cares for the clocks and works throughout the film to repair an automaton that may be a link to his late father.  Too often, child actors make us wince – they simply lack the nuance and experience needed to make us forget that we’re watching a kid in a costume in front of a lot of cameras.  From a casting perspective, fourteen year old Asa Butterfield is a visually perfect Hugo Cabret: a knock-kneed urchin with soulfully expressive blue eyes.  As an actor, he at least holds his own, and in a climactic scene near the end of the film, his loneliness and anguish and desperation are heart-breakingly convincing.

Much of the acclaim for acting in Hugo will go to Ben Kingsley – and deservedly so.  His portrayal of Georges Méliès is layered and powerful, so much better than his swing-for-the-fences caricatures in other films.  The biggest surprise is Sacha Baron Cohen, whose portrayal of the station inspector is both menacing and sweet: a welcome and unexpected respite from his Borat persona.

A supporting cast of flower girls, lapdogs, hot jazz musicians, and other archetypes contribute to the film’s gauzy, romantic vision of times past.  From the spectacularly swooping (but slightly too CGI-ish) opening scene, Scorsese imbues nearly every frame of the movie with affectionate, sentimental vignettes of 1930s Paris.  As an unapologetically romantic Francophile, I ate that stuff up.

And then there’s the automaton: the hauntingly beautiful mechanical deus ex machina that literally connects the dots of this sprawling story and transforms it from a mere childhood adventure to a broader examination of the true history of film and one of its forgotten early masters.

Hugo is brilliantly successful on many levels.  It’s a respectful, heartfelt adaptation of a story that blends truth and fiction into a seamless, captivating whole.  As a technical achievement it’s a visual masterpiece that sets the standard for what films can achieve with 3D technology.  And finally, it’s a beautiful homage to the filmmaking medium: one that celebrates (and demonstrates) the wonder and fascination of the movies.

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