In an age when surround sound and pyrotechnics dominate cinema, viewers are very rarely treated to movies that are both a feast to the senses and charming to the core. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is one such rare masterpiece. Beneath the shiny exterior of a 3D family movie, Hugo is a deep human drama that will appeal to a universal audience. The secret sauce is a timeless theme of hope, struggle and redemption. It is also a movie about movies, which some critics have described as Scorsese’s love-letter to his own profession.
Hugo is an orphan who lives in the periphery of Parisian society in the 1930s. Son of a master clockmaker, he loses his father early and finds shelter in a railway station. There he survives by stealing food and substituting at the clock-tower for his drunk uncle.
Hugo’s passion in life is to fix the “automaton”, an early robot that he believes contains a secret message from his departed father. For this he steals tools from a toy shop in the station, but is eventually caught in the act. The mysterious toystore owner seems to know the secrets of the automaton and appears to be very upset at having learnt about its existence. In the course of the story, it is revealed that this man is none other than the once-great filmmaker Georges Méliès, who has fallen on hard times. A frail shadow of his past, Méliès was an early pioneer of cinema. He harnessed the power of dreams in his movies and was known for blazing new trails in this young media. As Europe drowned in the devastation of World War I, his films were lost and Méliès was reduced to a bitter old shopkeeper.
Happy endings are for movies only, he retorts to Hugo. This section of the movie is a treasure-trove of information and archive footage from the early days of celluloid. Incidentally, Méliès was also the creator of the automaton.
Hugo then befriends Méliès’s goddaughter Isabella, and embarks on a series of adventures to unlock the mystery of the machine. He eventually succeeds and in the process helps rediscover Méliès’s lost films. Hugo earns a new family and cinema-goers rediscover the magic of his movies.
Based on Brian Selznick’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, John Logan’s screenplay masterfully blends complex layers of emotions. Hugo’s life in the station invokes the desperate times of Les Misérables. With his long hair, dirty nails and street-smart ways, Hugo is every bit the Dickensian street urchin. One may also discover a dash of Lewis Carrol in his adventures with Isabella. And then there are those Dali-esque dream sequences and sojourns through the history of cinema. Throughout this storyline, Scorsese demonstrates masterful grasp of the grammar of modern cinema as the movie switches back and forth between innocent adventures, deep reflections, comic relief and joyous redemption, but never veers into melodrama.
The young Asa Butterfield eminently deserves an Oscar nomination for his performance as Hugo. He delivers a stunningly measured performance as a vulnerable yet tough child. The rest of the stellar cast includes the great Ben Kingsley, Christopher Lee and Jude Law amongst others. Sacha Barron Cohen pulls off a cameo as a comical station inspector.
Hugo will especially resonate with an Indian audience. While watching it, one can’t help but remember our own Satyajit Ray, who, as a young boy, lost his father and later discovered the magic of cinema. In fact the short-statured Hugo, with his large dreamy eyes, resembles the young Apu from Pather Panchali.
For its gripping storyline, strong performances, masterful screenplay, and breath-taking 3D cinematography, Hugo is a must-watch among this season’s new releases. It will make viewers fall in love with movies, all over again.