As many of you who have been reading this blog for a while know, Hugo has been one of the films I’ve been looking forward to the most throughout the year and now I have seen the film. So does it live up to my expectations. No. Hugo completely surpassed those expectations and Hugo is now up there with True Grit for the place of my favourite film of 2011. Now this is one of the few reviews I am making in which I will be including a spoiler warning as, on order to share my full thoughts on Hugo, I need to give away the big twist in the middle of the film so if you haven’t seen Hugo yet, do not read the rest of this review until you have. Trust me.
Anyway, the first port of call with Hugo is the design of the film. Good God this film looks incredible. The way that the train station is designed is excellent, the tributes to classic films through the visuals are abundant and excellently done, the way that the film captures the feel of Paris despite it being filmed mostly in England is astonishing, the design of the automaton is incredible and it is fascinating to see how the machine works and what it does, the music by Howard Shore effectively evokes the style of both the silent movie era and of French music in general, the usage of sound is excellent, particularly in which the flashback to how Hugo got the automaton and why he lives in the train station being presented through the sound of a classic film projector and, most importantly, the way that the production of the classic films is shown is astonishing. The making of silent films is an area of film in which I am constantly fascinated and Hugo is the film which shows this process most effectively without becoming a full on documentary about silent films. I also have to mention the implementation of 3D in this film and this is also a reason why I have held of this review for a while. You see I felt that in order to give my full thoughts on Hugo I had to watch it in both 2D and 3D. Now that I have done so I can say that, without a doubt, you need to watch Hugo in 3D if you get the chance. The 3D is used in such an effective way without making it seem like a gimmick. It really does add a great deal of depth to the film, not only in terms of the physical depth of the film but also in terms of the tone. It feels so fitting that the most advanced film making technology at our fingertips is being used to tell the story about one of the pioneers of film as an artistic medium.
However, all the design flair in the world will not help you if the plot and the performances in the film are not strong and thankfully, this is the case. Going with the plot first, the character of Hugo is used as sort of a framing device in the film. A really well characterised framing device mind you but it feels that Hugo is there to get the much more fascinating story in the film on its way. Since I gave the spoiler warning I have no problem in saying this. Halfway through the film, it is revealed that Ben Kingsley’s character of Papa Georges is actually film-maker Georges Melies and it is here that the story becomes really interesting. Oh, the stuff beforehand is interesting don’t get me wrong, it is fascinating to see the life that Hugo leads and how his pain has helped him to become stronger as a person. In fact, the main reason why Hugo is in the film is so Melies has someone to project himself onto and someone to help him overcome his own pain. The way that Hugo overcomes his pain over losing his father and his philosophy that no person is useless can be seen as the help Melies needed in order to embrace the past and become a whole person again. As I said before, the scenes in which we see the techniques of silent film-making are excellent and the highlight of these sequences comes when Melies is telling the story of his life to Hugo, Isabelle and a film historian. The pain which we see in Melies destroying his life’s work comes through incredibly, helped by a top tier performance by Ben Kingsley as Melies and this scene for me is easily the highlight of the film. The little sub-plots in the film, particularly the relationships blooming between the people working at the train station and the little details about the life of the Station Inspector, are done with great heart and some of the sweetest moments in any film this year come through in these scenes.
Now onto the performances in the film. Without a doubt, Hugo has one of the best casts out of any film this year and everyone gets a chance to shine in the film. Starting off with the lead actor in the film, Asa Butterfield (not Ben Kingsley as the adverts and the credits claim) as Hugo. Butterfield is easily one of the best young actors working in film today, Butterfield is able to balance powerful emotions (see The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) with a great sense of fun (see Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang) and that comes through really well in his performance here. Butterfield gives a really passionate performance in his film and you can also tell that he is having a lot of fun in the role. Literally it is one of the best child performances I’ve seen recently and considering the strength of performances such as Joel Courtney in Super 8, Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit and Chloe Grace Moretz in Kick-Ass, that’s saying a lot. Speaking of Moretz, she also gives a great performance here as Isabelle. The way that she interacts with Ben Kingsley and Christopher Lee is incredible and she underplays the interaction with the two so well that you believe that she has known them all of her life and just naturally gets along with them, she perfectly nails the British accent and her chemistry with Butterfield is some of the best I’ve seen. The main factor which enables the chemistry between Butterfield and Moretz to be so strong is the fact that their characters are both clearly intelligent in different ways, engineering for Hugo and reading for Isabelle, with these two types of intelligence enabling Butterfield and Moretz to play off of each other brilliantly, especially in the scenes which just have the two talking about their problems and their lives. You can really tell that there’s a strong friendship between the characters that probably extended to a real life friendship between the two. There’s also a really funny performance from Sacha Baron Cohen as the station inspector, he is just a lovably awkward character and the scene in which he is trying to speak with Emily Mortimer’s flower seller Lisette is one of the funniest scenes I’ve seen this year. In fact, I’ll just come out and say it, between this and The Dictator (which is clearly a modernised version of The Great Dictator) Cohen is the 21st Century equivalent of Charlie Chaplin. I was surprised at how much screen-time some of the other actors in Hugo got. Jude Law and Ray Winstone were only in the film for about 3 minutes each whilst Christopher Lee gets a lot of screen-time and is actually the secondary character who interacts with Hugo and Isabelle the most. However, I have saved my views on the best performance until last. Easily the best performance in the film is Ben Kingsley as Georges Melies. Kingsley brings in a real dramatic weight to his role in every scene he’s in, even when it is just him sitting alone in his toy booth. The way that Kingsley portrays Melies as a broken down old man who has just lost his will is heartbreaking and, as said before, makes his performance in the life of Melies flashback even more effective. The way in which Kingsley makes the character so happy and full of life at the start of this scene provides a beautiful contrast with the way in which he acts at the start of the film and the way in which Kingsley handles the powerful emotional scene in which Melies destroys his life’s work makes you feel so much sorrow and pity for Melies that you want to see Hugo and Isabelle fix him. Plus it doesn’t hurt that Kingsley looks virtually identical to the real life Melies.
In conclusion, Hugo is a masterpiece. A work of real heart and soul presented by a film-maker who clearly respects the intelligence of the audience, no matter how old they are. This is the first film by Scorcese which I have seen in the cinema and it was just wondrous to behold. The combination of the design, the story and the acting easily propel Hugo to being at the height of quality in one of the best years for films I’ve seen recently. Do not miss out on Hugo.
Final Rating: 5/5