The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a wonderful book by Brian Selznick. It’s an unusual format and so wrapped up in the history of cinema that it is ready made to be adapted. It’s already so good that all that is left to do by a prospective film-maker is to get it wrong.
While I was intrigued by and enthusiastic about Martin Scorcese doing it (a story based on the history of cinema couldn’t be better suited to him), even in dreaded 3D, the trailer was a let-down. In truth, that was a very poor trailer! Hugo, despite the uninspired title change, is a very good film, better in some respects than I could have hoped for, but it does still make fundamental mistakes. I wanted to love it and for the first time, I felt the expectations a book set could have been met, but they weren’t. I’ll just have to settle for ‘bloody good’.
It’s a very easy film to recommend. It’s an uplifting and poetic story and if you love cinema in general, you should respond to it very well. It’s the story of an orphan living in the walls of the Paris train station. Following the death of his father Hugo had been taken in by his alcoholic Uncle, the stations time-keeper. Hugo’s Uncle has since disappeared and so to avoid the orphanage he keeps the clocks running so no-one is the wiser and has cause to check. He steals food as he needs it and parts from a toymaker’s stall. He needs the bits and pieces to repair an “Automaton”, a mechanical man he and his father worked on together and the clockwork man will be able to write a message that Hugo dreams will be a message from his dad. But the Toymaker has a sad history tied up with the Automaton and when he catches Hugo stealing one day he takes the boys notebook to stop him continuing the repair. The Toymaker’s grand-daughter is intrigued and wants to help Hugo…
Martin Scorcese is not known for making mainstream films like this, much less children’s stories, but he has crafted a beautiful film. It has a steady, effortless pace that perfectly matches the books unique melancholy yet optimistic tone. Scorcese doesn’t force any scenes; he just lets the camera mingle with the typical comings and goings of the station, observing rather than chasing and zooming. This is complemented by the photography that, although is in colour contrary to the original black and white, retains the shadowy, warm depth the book had.
The camera glides through the station following Hugo as he spies on people from behind the clocks; sort of a mini Phantom of the Opera, but without the unhinged stalker angle! Here we see additions to Selznick’s story in expanded characters. There’s a lovely relationship between Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths. He keeps trying to talk to her, but her little dog growls and bites him every time! The sequences are all the better for the fact we largely see them from a distance with little dialogue. Same goes for the Station Inspector (Sascha Baron Cohen) and his attempts to chat up a flower seller (Emily Mortimer). They make for nice asides to the main plot, although the Station Inspector does have a larger role as Hugo’s nemesis, a feared orphan catcher.
Sascha Baron Cohen’s performance is one of the films highlights and a great relief. From the trailer, I’d assumed he would be a ridiculous character, but actually he fits in perfectly and so does his hilarious dog. The absolute star of the film is Ben Kingsley as the Toy Maker though. He is a heart-breaking character and Kingsley gives such a delicate and open performance considering who he turns out to be. I’m determined not to spoil that, even though if you pay too close attention to the films promotional press you’ll probably work it out. It won’t ruin the film, but still, I remember the revelation in the book and it should be enjoyed.
The films weaknesses come in with the kids. Asa Butterfield who plays Hugo is very good, but rather reliant on whom he plays opposite, so the scenes with Kingsley, Baron Cohen and Christopher Lee (great extended cameo as a book seller, another nicely judged built up minor character) are superb. Sadly though, his relationship with Isabelle, the Toymaker’s grand-daughter played by Chloe Moretz, lacks the essential innocent chemistry.
Isabelle as a character is the failure and despite Chloe Moretz’s incredible performances in Kick Ass and Let Me In she just doesn’t have the experience to rescue it. I can’t fathom why the ball would be dropped here; the character was perfect on the page. The Isabelle in the original story loves books and cinema and Hugo hasn’t been to the pictures since his dad died, so Isabelle shows him how she sneaks in regularly. They bond over a shared, illicit love of film (her grandfather forbids her from seeing films). In retrospect, she is a vital character because by the end she has not only been instrumental in the relationship between her grandfather and Hugo, but she represents why her grandfather was so haunted in the first place. Around her neck she has a key on a chain which Hugo realises fits the Automaton, but you could also see it as a metaphor for how important she is in the narrative. This is lost in the film and it’s infuriating why such an elegant use of a character would be abandoned.
The book had a dark side especially where the early years of cinema were concerned and that gave it a more solid grounding. The film occasionally feels fluffy and sentimental in comparison because Isabelle’s tragic history is not mentioned and that undermines the impact on her grandfather and his philosophy. She is entirely ignorant of film and it is instead Hugo who sneaks her in to the cinema, but that doesn’t make sense. The fact Hugo hadn’t set foot in a cinema since his father’s death was a perfectly judged emotional hook in the story. Possibly worst of all, Isabelle’s love of books has given the film version of her an infuriating habit of using big words, as if to demonstrate how educated she is. For example, she exclaims at one moment, “Oh! It’s suuu-per-lative!!!”. Makes you want to slap her. Unfortunately it rendered the chemistry with Hugo cold and her character unbelievable. She still has the key on a chain, but once it’s used and they rush to her grandparents –which is the pivotal point in the film- she kind of just drifts into the background. An unforgivable shame because there was no need to alter her at all. I’m not sure Moretz was ever right for the role, but she was handicapped from the beginning.
Still there is no hiding the story altogether and the reveal is magnificent. As the film shifts into the second half it becomes an unashamed love letter to cinema. Scorcese makes enthusiastic use of an opportunity to re-imagine the silent era and it’s gorgeous, full of colour and wonder. There are also two dream sequences that really stand out and reveal an effort to give the film a deeper identity. And, may I be struck down for saying this, the 3D is used brilliantly.
For the first time ever, not only was I not distracted by the 3D, there are moments that actually benefited from it. I’ve always said the Achilles’ Heel of 3D, the reason it will always be a gimmick, is that it is impossible to support it in a narrative. Every other element of a film can be dictated by story. There’s a reason for colour, a reason for sound, a reason for widescreen. It all sums up the theory of Mise en scene and 3D in live action can only be an interruption. Scorcese has demonstrated that the story of Hugo can not only support 3D, but it flourishes with it. His use is very subtle and the smooth style I spoke of earlier, with long takes that rarely need to quickly zoom or pan, really helps. Being mainly set in a train station and especially within the walls where Hugo hides, there is a huge amount of natural obstacles (railings, clock faces, giant cogs, lift shafts) that allow the film to live in a 3D world while rarely needing to wave something at the audience.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. 3D is still invalid until it can be seen without the need of tinted glasses and there are still problems with perspective in some shots. Not only that, serendipity helped Scorcese in this case with such a story. Unless every 3D film from now on is going to be leisurely paced and set in a train station, I’m still cynical about its use overall! Still, hopefully directors will look at his achievement and realise slow and steady is artistically better than lobbing things at the viewer.
I wanted to love this film and I almost do. It looks so beautiful and brings to wonderful life a turbulent period in film, not to mention it’s a huge step forward for 3D, this should be a solid five star children’s classic. But while the steady pace was already going to test attention spans, the treatment of the Isabelle character threatens to derail the entire thing and it was such an unnecessary change taking away some of the warmth and allowing the narrative to drift. It’s odd that a story that features so many clocks lacks a sense of time.