Hugo: Scorsese’s Magnificent Dream Machine

Turning from violent men to a poignant waif, the director pays luminous tribute to old films—in his best new film of the millennium

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Paramount Pictures Corporation

Asa Butterfield and Chloe Moretz in Hugo

Most boys’ adventure stories send their young heroes on far-flung journeys of self-discovery. Hugo travels no more than a mile from the station. He is both a modern child, with an automaton instead of a computer as his obsessive machine, and a Dickensian hero: a beautiful boy in terrible circumstances with the nourishing memory of a wonderful, lost parent. And the Gare Montmartre is his home, school, workhouse, prison and Quasimodo bell tower. As designed by Dante Ferretti (on the Shepperton Studio soundstage), the station is a cathedral of Deco splendor, no less magical than King’s Cross Station and its Track 9-3/4, the launch point to Hogwarts for another 11-year-old orphan, Harry Potter.

This world-within-a-world is populated with curious folks playing out their own little dramas of disappointment and romance. Among them are an elderly gentleman (The History Boys‘ Richard Griffiths) and his dowager friend (that English stage treasure, Frances de la Tour). Even the Station Inspector, who in story terms in the hounding Javert to Hugo’s jeune Jean Valjean, is not entirely forbidding. Baron Cohen’s rendition summons specters of both the French comic-auteur Jacques Tati and — in a homage so explicit it must be intentional — the persnickety authority figure so often played by Dudley Moore’s comedy partner Peter Cook. The Inspector is given a potential mate in the lovely sad-sack Lisette (Emily Mortimer), whom he pursues in and out of the station’s swank café, with a dance band conducted by…wait, is that dapper gent Johnny Depp?

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Selznick’s book, a 500-pager with more pictures than chapters, and readable in an enthralling hour or so, served as the movie’s storyboards, paper prints or flip-book. It was inspired by the films of Méliès, the Lumière brothers, Harold Lloyd and René Clair and, from a later generation of dreamers, François Truffaut’s debut feature, The 400 Blows; the book’s Hugo is a ringer for Jean-Pierre Léaud, the 15-year-old who played Truffaut’s ragamuffin truant Antoine Doinel. Hugo is no less desperate, but as animated by Butterfield’s idealized, pre-Raphaelite beauty, he is a lost saint, not a lost scoundrel. Hugo has a mission, which will bring him a home, the gratitude of parent-figures and the companionship of Isabelle, a girl no less resourceful than he — and, in her Louise Brooks haircut, a silent-film goddess in her own right.

Scorsese had two missions of his own. One was to use his first children’s-film project to push 3-D beyond gimmickry (though his climactic restaging of Arrival of a Train comes close). The sharper images and more beckoning depths, gorgeously captured by cinematographer Robert Richardson, reveal the Montparnasse station as a magnificent fantasy coexisting with Hugo’s poignant reality. Scorsese also wanted to open viewers’ eyes to the sacred sorcery of the first great films. In an ecstatic primer for the young, and a reminder for their elders, Hugo and Isabelle flip through a book of movie history and images spring to life: the films of Lumière, the Edison company, Buster Keaton, Louise Brooks — the whole fabulous parade. Suggestion for FOOFS (Friends Of Old Films): this weekend, take in a double feature of Hugo and The Artist, another splendid new film that means to rekindle a nearly-century-old love affair for silent movies.

But Hugo is more than a love letter to film preservation, a charitable donation to movie lovers, critics included. It is a fable as sensitive and powerful as any Scorsese film since The Age of Innocence nearly two decades ago. Bursting with earned emotion, Hugo is a mechanism that comes to life at the turn of a key in the shape of a heart.

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