"Hugo" (at NYC's MoMI tomorrow) may be not just Martin Scorsese's best film but possibly the greatest movie ever made
The trailer for Hugo doesn't give much hint of the movie's brilliance, but then, it may be that nothing except the movie itself could do that. Which is kind of the point.
SHORT VERSION: If you’re available and within range of the Museum of the Moving Image on Friday afternoon, and you haven’t seen Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011), or for that matter if you have, what you need to know is that there’s a repeat screening scheduled at 3pm, concluding the initial installment of the museum’s planned Scorsese retrospective, Martin Scorsese in the 21st Century. You'd be nuts to pass up the opportunity.
LONGER VERSION: I saw Hugo last Saturday afternoon knowing nothing about either the movie or the book it’s based on, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, except what I'd read in an online interview that was keyed on the MoMI page for the film, who was on hand to introduce the show and to sign books afterward, and by the time Brian finished his intro, before I’d seen a frame of the film, he’d sold me a book. By the time the film ended, I was entertaining the possibility that it’s the best movie I’ve ever seen.
That’s one reason I’m going back Friday – to see how Hugo holds up to a second viewing, and to a viewing with as much of the book as I can manage under my belt by then. Another reason is that I don’t know when I’ll have my next opportunity to see the film the way it was meant to be seen.
The first thing you're always going to be told about Hugo is that it's Scorsese's only "family" film, and this is true but misleading -- it suggests something very different from a film of unique richness, humanity, and depth. I'm hardly the world's biggest Scorsese fan, but there's never been any question in my mind about either his filmmaking talent or his passion for the medium. I've just tended to figure that the concerns that have tended to dominate most, or at least many, of his films, are just more important to other filmgoers than to me.
And then came Hugo.
Hugo (Asa Butterfield) and Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) inside the giant station clock in the movie, above, and in Brian Selznick's original pencil drawing, below. [Click to enlarge.]
THE MIRACLE OF THE BOOK
Brian has explained in interviews how the framework for the book evolved, out of his idea of an encounter between a child and an artifact of the all-but-forgotten pioneering filmmaker Georges Méliès, which he had the idea of making one of the onetime magician's barely surviving automatons. (Yes, Méliès made automatons.) He sketched for us the steps by which Hugo Cabret was imagined, as the abandoned orphan son of a family of clockmakers, living secretly inside the hidden spaces of one of Paris's great train stations, filled with bustle and human traffic. (If I got right what Brian said, for the book he had imagined the Gare Montparnasse, but the film mostly re-creates the Gare du Nord. He even had a wonderful story of his own about a brief visit of his own, during the making of the film, to the real Gare du Nord; I wish he were on hand to tell it to you.) Within the station are a whole host of shops, including a toy booth presided over by crusty old Papa Georges, who has a goddaughter, Isabelle, becomes enmeshed in a complex relationship with Hugo. There's also a bookshop owned by a Monsieur Labisse, which is Isabelle's sanctuary; she lives her life through books.
Hugo, Isabelle, and the rest of the characters are his own invention, buttressed by apparently large quantities of research into the Paris of the period of the story, and of course into Méliès's life and times. It all works so well together that the book had a hugely successful life even when its creator thought it would remain a self-contained story.
THE MIRACLE OF THE FILM
But all that richness of story, character, and was sitting there waiting when the book found its way to Martin Scorsese, who wound up absorbing it all into his vision for a film that seems likely to stand as his testament as a filmmaker.
The stories of the book essentially are Scorsese's stories. Lonely Hugo looking out at the world through his clocks and grates apparently resonated powerfully with his childhood memories (and I'm guessing the the theme throughout the book of fiercely guarded secrets did too), and the history of film, not to mention film as the ultimate medium for dreams, is where he lives. And there's no question but that he "got" the book; it's breathtaking how much, in both detail and inspiration, Scorsese, screenwriter John Logan, and the entire production team drew from Brian Selznick's words and pictures.
Cinematographer Robert Richardson's 3-D is a crucial component of the story. The visual field, in fact, just barely contains the enormous amount of intimate human observation; for once, Scorsese's famous obsession with detail expands and enriches rather than suffocating the picture. As noted, I'm in awe of the created physical production. At least as notable is the richness of humanity Scorsese and team have created in and around all their locations -- principally, of course, the train station, where they have invented a whole teeming daily life including a whole roster of characters, some of them invented by the film team, but then there's the Station Inspector, Hugo's ultimate nightmare, who exists in the book, ultimately playing the exact same role he does in the film, but has been expanded in the film to a major player throughout, with a fleshed-out life and also an added plaintive, comic tinge that's perfectly suited to Sacha Baron Cohen.
The acting, the acting, the acting, from top to bottom. Ben Kingsley is hardly an unknown quantity, but if he's ever done anything better, I haven't seen it. The bitterness and deadness of soul that enshroud Papa Georges most of the way -- who would have thought he had that kind of performance in him? (Answer: Marty Scorsese.) Or there's Jude Law, another actor of enormous demonstrated versatility who even so is stunning in his tiny bits of screen time as Hugo's sainted father, in terms of dramatic importance one of the story's most important character. By comparison, Michael Stuhlbarg would have been an obvious choice for the film historian Tabard, keeper of the flame of Georges Méliès, but that doesn't make him any less fine in his role. Obviously an enormous amount depends on the children, and Asa Butterfield (Hugo) and Chloë Grace Moretz (Isabelle) are just splendid -- not as "kid" performers but as for-real actors.