“My friends, I address you all tonight as you truly are: Wizards, mermaids, travelers, adventurers, magicians! Come and dream with me.”
Amidst all the accolades for the admittedly fantastic film The Artist last year – including taking home Best Picture, Director and Actor amongst its five Oscars at the 84th Academy Awards – another film also won five Oscars, albeit less important ones. That film was, of course, Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s fantastic homage to seemingly everything he loves: Charles Dickens; Georges Méliès; the early 30’s Paris; Django Reinhardt; trains; clocks; magicians; the history of film-making; dreams; silent movies; toys; and oh, did I mention Dickens? As I watched the film the first time, I was struck by how much it seemed that the film was adapted from a work by the great master. If memory serves (and good luck with that!), there are references to both A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield in the film. But more importantly, the main character, Hugo Cabret, portrayed brilliantly by then 14 year old Asa Butterfield (the main character, Bruno, in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) is under constant threats & attempts at banishment to The Orphanage from the Station Inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen at his best!), whose partial disability seems a metaphor for his slightly evil spirit. Station Inspector is by no means Madame Defarge, but he is not her husband either.
The film follows a short but very eventful period in Hugo’s life. He is the son in the business Cabret et Fils – Horlogers. His single father is a master clockmaker whose pastime is fixing an automaton – a sort of a clock meets music box meets robot – that he found abandoned in the attic of a museum where he once worked. This particular automaton writes, but it’s in disrepair and, more importantly, requires a heart-shaped key that seems lost to history in order to function. An unfortunate accident takes Hugo’s Dad’s (Jude Law) life early on in the film and he becomes the ward of his lazy, filthy, drunken & abusive Uncle Claude – the minor role is played marvelously by Ray Winston. He moves Hugo in with him to the apartment within the walls of the train station where he is to quit going to school and assist Uncle Claude in the maintenance of the clocks. His life is instantly transformed from a happy child, the curious son & apprentice of a craftsman, to one of misery: He’s always starving & he’s not well-cared for, and has to steal food to vanquish the pangs. But there is one good thing about the new digs: The train station has a toy shop owned & guarded by a late middle-aged, bald gentlemen (stunningly portrayed by Ben Kingsley) who sleeps a lot. This convenience affords Hugo the opportunity to steal parts for the one vestige of his happy life with his father, the automaton, which he is certain will reveal a message from his dead Dad once he gets it working.
Hugo’s puppy love interest, albeit so innocent that they are more brother & sister, is the toy store owner’s god-daughter, Isabelle. Isabelle, whose parent are also deceased, is played by Chloë Grace Moretz. Chloë’s characterization is wonderful: She’s exuberant & her eyes are wide open to all the different adventures that happen to her as a result of meeting her new friend Hugo. To Isabelle, life is an adventure. When Hugo takes her to a movie – they sneak in and Isabelle declares that “They could get into trouble”, to which Hugo replies “That’s how you know it’s an adventure” – their friendship is sealed. Papa Georges & his wife Mama Jeanne had always strictly forbade her from ever seeing a movie, but Hugo takes care of that. Once he has a true friend, Hugo is free to “find his way”.
This is the first non-documentary feature film which didn’t star Leonardo DiCaprio that Scorsese has made in 12 years . And his first in 18 years that was Rated PG. Although he was Nominated for the Best Director Oscar four times, and Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay once each, he has only won a single Academy Award: Best Director for The Departed in 2007 at the 79th Academy Awards. Kingsley is a four-time nominee & won the Best Actor Oscar in ’83 for Ghandi at the 55th Awards ceremony. The Adapted Screenplay is fantastic & John Logan received his only such Nomination for it, although he was also nominated for Original Screenplay for both Gladiator & Scorsese’s The Aviator.
There are just too many incredible performance, too much brilliant history, too many clips of silent masterpieces, too many scholarly references – too much of everything, which is just enough!! – to get to them all. But suffice it to say that this was the best film from all of the last Oscar year in my opinion – and what it year it was for films!! I think with time, the novelty will wear off along with some of the luster for the (and I reiterate, great piece) The Artist, and Hugo will be remembered more fondly in years to come. You love them both if you’ve seen them both. If you haven’t & you have just $1, however, and there’s a Red Box nearby and you go – Hugo!!!