Ok, firstly I watched this in the 2D version. Not my plan, but the combination of a start time an hour and a half later than ideal plus an eye-watering 40% (ish) mark-up on the admission price made the choice not to buy the 3D ticket a no-brainer. And yet, as the first sweeping shots made clear that Scorsese’s serious about 3D, I wondered whether I’d made a serious error. I’d be really interested to know, from those who’ve seen both versions, how much that extra dimension adds to the enjoyment of the viewing experience.
As it was, this 2D version was a real pleasure. A beautiful, sweet and charming paean to early cinema, it is a cinephile’s treat. Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan hiding away in a 1920’s French railway station, maintaining all the clocks and stealing from an in-station toy shop the pieces he needs to do this, and also to try and repair a mysterious clockwork automaton. Caught by the owner, Georges (Ben Kingsley), he is forced to give up both the stolen clockwork pieces and a notebook with detailed instructions on various aspects of the automaton. The notebook seems to upset Georges, who threatens to burn it, to Hugo’s utter despair. Following Georges to his home, Hugo befriends the toyshop owner’s goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), who promises to help him recover the book, regarding the whole thing as “an adventure” – and an adventure duly ensues, as they try to work out the mystery of Georges’ connection with the automaton.
Threat is provided by the station guard (Sacha Baron Cohen), a Clouseau-esque figure with a malfunctioning (clockwork, and the idea of people as well as machines sometimes needing repair, is a constant theme in the film) support for his war-wounded leg, callously rounding up waifs and strays to send to the orphanage while himself trying to find the confidence to approach a pretty flowerseller.
There are a host of minor characters played by an array of British acting talent but the real stars of this movie are old films themselves, several of which get played in snippets to “ground” this film, and some of which get replayed, either in recreations of the filming of them or in nods to them in Hugo’s own adventures (the film poster above takes it’s cue from Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last) – some of the scenes of Hugo’s clockworks look rather like they are referencing Metropolis, as does the automaton itself. To me, who’s been trying to catch up on cinema’s history and watch as many classics as possible, a couple of these scenes looked a little clunky, like documentary lessons (albeit pleasant ones) in the middle of the movie but I imagine, for young viewers, they might well convey the wonder of cinema to its first audiences.
With some superb cinematography, excellent acting – not least from both the child leads – this is a proper family film, and is one of the best movies of the year.