Hugo is the tale of a young orphaned boy (Asa Butterfield), living secretly in the walls of a train station in Paris, solely responsible for maintaining the clocks after the departure of his drunken uncle (Ray Winstone). Hugo’s father (an oddly cast Jude Law) died recently, leaving him one family heirloom: an intriguing automaton in need of repair, and Hugo spends his days looking for the missing pieces.
Along the way, he meets Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), a fellow orphan in love with the world of literature and looking for an adventure. Isabelle introduces Hugo to the station library, overseen by Christopher Lee who boasts a remarkably short cameo in the film. We also meet the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) whose job appears to be rounding up orphans and sending them to the local home, with the help of his elegant Doberman who helps Cohen produce some slapstick comedy moments.
There are a few things wrong, however, with the first half of the film: namely the lack of anything remotely French in this Paris-based tale. American directors have a knack of setting their films in foreign lands and casting yanks to play the leads: here, Scorsese is working with a predominantly British cast, yet Lee is the only actor to make any kind of effort at a French accent. Where is the sense in casting well-spoken Brits as French down-and-outs?
Another frustrating element is the visuals: this film was clearly made with 3D in mind from the beginning, and so the visuals are epic and beautiful, but at the cost of the story itself. Although based on a novel, which presumably focuses on plot from beginning to end, Hugo at times feels lost, meandering into montages of sweeping shots through the layers of the station, and dream sequences which do nothing except show off the brilliant CGI.
There is also a severe lack of character development, especially amongst the supporting cast. Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths play a couple who are clearly meant to involve the viewer in a quaint little subplot, which actually fails to engage at all, given the lack of dialogue or any sort of longing between them as they glance at each other across the platform day after day. A similar situation occurs between the Station Inspector and Lisette (Emily Mortimer) whose unrequited love is hardly enthralling, leaving no room for fanfare or celebration at their eventual union.
The latter half of the film though, is much better paced, better written and directed. (WARNING, SPOILERS)…
The development of Sir Ben Kingsley’s character, and the revelation of his secret identity as Georges Méliès, is a fantastic twist in the tale, finally injecting some colour and life into the story. The back-catalogue of Méliès’ work used in the film is incredible, and the story behind the rise and fall of the man is utterly engrossing. Kingsley is superb in his last ever screen role, and his wife, played by the beautiful Helen McCrory is also utterly believable and charming in her role. I suspect that had Scorsese chanced to make a biopic of the iconic French godfather of film, audiences would have been graced with a far superior movie.
As it stands, it pains me to say that Scorsese (one of my favourite and most highly respected directors) has missed the mark on this one. A visual triumph, Hugo fails on all other counts: casting, script, plot, and even direction. If you’re a huge Scorsese fan, I recommend you stick to your Goodfellas and The Departed.