LoveFilm sent me this film back in May and it’s taken me until now to get around to watching it. I’m somewhat ambivalent towards Martin Scorsese (I know, I know, fighting talk) – I often find his films unnecessarily violent, bleak and far too long – and I wasn’t sure what to expect from a film of his apparently aimed at children. But, the enthusiasm for this film amongst film critics and people I know who had seen it buoyed me.
I probably should have trusted my instincts. Firstly, it’s not a kid’s film although it’s not violent or inappropriate. And it’s not a bad film. It’s just a bit dull.
It is based on the Brian Selznick book ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’. Set in Paris in the 1930s it tells the story of Hugo (Asa Butterfield) a young orphan boy who, following his father’s death, has been taken to live at the Gare Montparnasse and taught to repair the clocks by his alcoholic uncle (Ray Winstone). His uncle has disappeared but Hugo remains, scrounging a living, maintaining the clocks and trying to evade detection by the station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). Before he died Hugo’s father (Jude Law), who worked in a museum, had found an automaton, a clockwork man, and had been teaching Hugo how to repair it. He left Hugo his notebook, which Hugo has been using to continue his father’s work. When he gets caught stealing parts from a toymaker, Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley) who confiscates the notebook, Hugo follows him home in order to try and retrieve it. There he meets Papa Georges’ goddaughter Isabelle (Chlöe Grace Moretz) who he enlists to help him. It gradually becomes clear that Papa Georges is actually visionary French filmmaker Georges Méliès and the automaton belongs to him.
As I said, this is not a bad film and there is much to admire. It is a love letter to cinema telling, as it does, the life story of Georges Méliès. There are homages to iconic moments in cinema history, notably Méliès’ ‘Le Voyage dans la Lune’ and Harold Lloyd’s ‘Safety Last!’ It also features a re-creation of the famous train crash at Gare Montparnasse.
The opening sequence is breathtakingly beautiful: the camera swoops across the rooftops of Paris as the seasons change from Spring to Winter, moving closer to the station and then travelling along the platform and into the terminal as we are introduced to each character. It has the stylised look of a Toulouse Lautrec painting, some scenes looking almost like animation. It’s dripping with art deco styling and the clockwork mechanisms of the station clocks, the toys and the automaton are exquisitely realised.
But for me, sadly, it never fulfilled its potential or lived up to the promise of these visuals. The casting jarred and I frequently found much of the acting mannered and stilted, especially Butterfield who too often seemed to be trying too hard to be an ‘act-or’. Spielberg has the knack of coaxing naturalistic performances from his child actors – I’m not sure Scorsese has this same gift. And despite telling a story that should have been fascinating, the plot meandered and was simply not very interesting.
In the hands of Tim Burton or maybe even Baz Luhrmann this might have been a different film. A little more magic and enchantment would have gone a long way to smoothing over the cracks. But for me, it missed the mark.
Originally posted 24 September 2012