The story of Martin Scorsese’s childhood has long been established in movie lore: from a young age, he had suffered from asthma and had spent his formative years stuck indoors in the cinemas of New York City. In those darkened movie theatres, he discovered his love for films, retreating into the fantasy worlds created by directors like his later-life mentor Michael Powell. Although it is a dramatic departure from the crime pictures for which he’s best known, Scorsese’s latest film Hugo may be his most personal work in ages.
Set in a Parisian railway station in the early 1930s, the film tells the story of Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), a young orphan boy who secretly maintains the clocks at the station. He spends his days stealing food, evading security and scavenging parts to repair a discarded clockwork automaton left to him by his father. He befriends Chloë Grace Moretz’s Isabelle, the adopted daughter of Ben Kingsley’s Georges Méliès, a reclusive silent film director now reduced to selling toys at the Station. Despite Papa Georges’ bitter protests Hugo and Isabelle begin to unlock the secrets of the automaton.
The character of Georges Méliès is a real historical figure. An accomplished magician, he directed hundreds of silent films and in the process pioneered special effects through techniques such as multiple exposures and false perspective. His most famous surviving work is A Trip to the Moon, whose iconic image of a rocket shot into the eye of the moon has been parodied extensively (the Smashing Pumpkins’ Tonight, Tonight video is a direct homage). By the time the Great War was over, Méliès was bankrupt and as depicted in the film, turned to selling toys at the Montparnasse station.
Scorsese’s film, based on a book by Brian Selznick, is as much about the romanticism of early cinema as it is about a young boy finding his purpose. The clockwork interiors of the station and the whirring machinery of the city mirror the workings of a motion picture camera and we see the power that films have to amaze and transfix its audience. The historical detail will mean nothing to children, but Hugo is a heartfelt and thrilling adventure first and foremost. Scorsese’s camera is as kinetic as ever, swooping through crowds and tumbling around back passages of Paris.
From one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of the medium comes this swooning love letter to the wonderful fantasies made by those shadows projected in the dark.