Oscar Profile: Hugo

by Tom Ingram

Genre Adventure
People Martin Scorsese d.p.; John Logan w.; Howard Shore m.; Ben Kingsley; Sacha Baron Cohen; Jude Law; Christopher Lee; Asa Butterfield; Chloë Moretz; Ray Winstone; Helen McCrory; Michael Stuhlbarg; Richard Griffiths
/10 8

A boy is caught stealing and is forced to work for a misanthropic toy shop owner to pay back his debt. He meets Isabelle, the shopkeeper’s adopted daughter, and together they discover that the shopkeeper is Georges Méliès, the early film pioneer who has since fallen into hard times. Together they try to rekindle his love of life and imagination.

It’s interesting that two of this year’s contenders are paeans to the movies of a hundred years ago. Scorsese clearly knew and loved his subject matter and presents it in a captivating way. He shows us a world of colour and cinematic razzmatazz, audacious illusions and effects, film lovingly edited by hand out of sheer delight in the entertainment it provides.

But Hugo‘s greatest feature is also its debilitating flaw. The Vernesque adventurism of the silent movies overwhelms the rest of the film. Hugo himself is not as interesting as he originally seemed, and the mystery of the automaton turns out to be no mystery at all. The introduction is promising, and the movie builds up steam as an adventure with a puzzle at its core. But there’s no follow-through. After a disorienting shift in tone from grim to optimistic, it becomes nothing but a vehicle for the films of Georges Méliès.

Hugo is filmed in lush, warm tones, though the constant orange on blue can wear thin. Several shots are designed specifically to show off the 3D, and the movie suffers somewhat for it. I don’t know if I’d say it has the best cinematography, but it’s certainly one of the most overtly cinematographed of all the movies up this year. The visual effects are unobtrusive and quite stunning when they do come up. Most of the work is in maintaining continuity between the original and reused footage, but there is one dream sequence that’s quite effective.

Howard Shore’s score is superb. He makes references to some of the best French music of the time. Saint-Saëns and gypsy jazz (one of the guitarists in the restaurant is meant to be Django Reinhardt) both feature prominently. You can’t argue with the performances, which feature Ben Kingsley as Méliès, young up-and-comer Asa Butterfield as Hugo, as well as Christopher Lee, Jude Law, and a suprisingly restrained and effective Sacha Baron Cohen.

Hugo is a very slick production that will deservedly win a number of awards. The deft hand of a cinematic master is at work in every frame. But the second half of the movie cancels out the first half. As a lovingly crafted documentary on film pioneers, an ode in moving pictures, it’s great. But as a story unto itself, not so much.

Up for:

  • Best Picture
  • Best Director (Scorsese)
  • Best Adapted Screenplay (Logan, from the novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick)
  • Best Cinematography
  • Best Original Score (Shore)
  • Best Art Direction
  • Best Costume Design
  • Best Visual Effects
  • Best Film Editing
  • Best Sound Editing
  • Best Sound Mixing