At its best, Hugo is a wonderfully heartfelt tribute to what Martin Scorsese loves about going to the movies – truly a cinephile’s treat. There are nods to history all over the place, from ‘silent’/mimed romantic vignettes, viewed from a distance as in Rear Window, to elaborately choreographed slapstick à la Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin. The film’s primary subject, the pioneering filmmaker Georges Méliès, is the highlight: Scorsese is fascinated with the physicality of movie making – the clicks and whirrs of a camera, the mechanics of a shoot – and when we see his reconstructions of Méliès’ beautifully designed, logistically miraculous early-1900s film sets, so are we.
The problem is that this sparkling homage (which dominates the last half hour) is grafted onto a much less successful kids’ film about an orphan boy living in the nooks of a Paris train station who discovers Méliès (now an older, disillusioned shopkeeper played by Ben Kingsley) and his art. We can see what Scorsese might have been thinking – it’s through a child’s eye that magic truly happens – but these early sections are hamstrung by the performances of his two young actors and a lumbering script. At times the dialogue is oddly slow, inviting the audience to search for hidden meaning where none is being communicated. Even Sacha Baron Cohen, last seen wrestling stark-naked with a 30-stone man in Borat, has had his wings thoroughly clipped, playing a stern station inspector with a nondescript accent and curiously expressionless face.
Given the technological enterprise at the heart of its subject, it’s perhaps no surprise – perhaps even appropriate – that this film is in 3D. Scorsese’s foremost new toy, however, appears to be the omnipotent camera, which swoops and dives around the train station and through the insides of clockwork contraptions as if it had no physical form at all. The first two minutes, for instance, plunges us down from the Paris skyline, along train tracks, into the station and up towards Hugo’s wide eye peering through the number ‘4’ of a giant clock. It’s impressive but also clunkingly conspicuous, having the effect of an industry demo for what modern CGI can do.
In fact as an opening it’s rather instructive: this is a film about the possibilities of cinema which forgets to create much magic of its own. It’s caught bewteen looking backwards and forwards with equal wonder – and is far less convincing when doing the latter. The 3D, as usual, adds nothing – other than an ironic slant to a scene in a cinema (apparently based on truth) in which we watch people watching the Lumière brothers’ famous arriving train and flinching away from the screen. Of course, like countless cinemagoers since, these patrons are fooled by simple use of perspective. Their screen is ‘flat’. And as we, Scorsese’s audience, sit watching in our dark plastic glasses, nothing could be clearer demonstration of their redundancy.