In Hugo, actor Asa Butterfield mirrors a classic silent-movie sequence. It's just one of the nods to cinematic history in Martin Scorcese's gorgeous new film. Images courtesy Paramount Pictures.
Nobody gets blown away in Hugo, the magnificent new movie by Martin Scorsese. Nor does America’s master of cinematic violence rely on an anxiety-ridden neurotic to drive the story as he did in Raging Bull and Taxi Driver.
Instead, the PG-rated Hugo rides on the slender shoulders of 12-year-old actor Asa Butterfield, who plays the title character, an orphaned boy who lives in a train station. And while the movie might seem uncharacteristically mellow, it retains the Scorsese signature in at least one regard: The film looks fantastic.
From 1973’s Mean Streets on, the 69-year-old filmmaker has kept audiences on edge by dangling the prospect that, any minute now, something horrible was about to happen. Hugo promises that, any minute now, something wondrous will take place.
Teaming again with production designer Dante Ferretti, cinematographer Bob Richardson and The Aviator scribe John Logan, Scorsese has fashioned from Brian Selznick’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret a gorgeous steampunk vision of 1930s Paris.
A master re-creator of bygone urban worlds ranging from 19th-century New York (Gangs of New York) to 1970s Las Vegas (Casino), this time around Scorsese conjures imagery that looks like it could have leapt off the pages of a lavishly illustrated pop-up book. His camera swoops through and around gleaming gears and flywheels, levers and pulleys, pistons and locomotives.
The plot is pretty straightforward: Hugo meets Isabelle (played by Kick-Ass‘ Chloë Grace Moretz) and together they figure out the connection between a mysterious automaton and a grumpy toy merchant (Ben Kingsley). After the death of Hugo’s clockmaker father (Jude Law), the boy lives in the secret compartments of a train station and takes over a drunken uncle’s duties as keeper of the depot’s massive clocks.
It’s a sweet saga with no real villains. Even the station gendarme with a bum leg (played by Sacha Baron Cohen of Borat fame) who hectors Hugo throughout most of the film turns out to be a pretty nice guy. Unlike in Scorsese’s previous films, criminal behavior is confined to the swiping of croissants by the spindly-legged Hugo. As you’d expect from a director known for his 60 takes-and-more perfectionism, the actors deliver poised performances.
Clocking in at just over two hours, Hugo would have succeeded as a handsomely mounted family adventure had it closed down around the 90-minute mark. But Scorsese then pivots the entire enterprise by shifting gears for a transcendent third-act display of cinemaphile showmanship.
(Spoiler alert: Major plot point follows.)