Starring: Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen
Director: Martin Scorsese
Midway into Martin Scorsese's latest film, Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen) - a station inspector whose dedication to locking up stray children makes him the film's arch-villain - finds himself face to face with the film's two young protagonists, Hugo (Asa Butterfield, above) and Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz). Trying to distract the officer from hassling her friend, Isabelle begins to recite Christina Rossetti's A Birthday. Gustav flinches and stops her in mid-verse: 'I love poetry, just not in the station. We're here to either get on trains, get off them or work in different shops. Is that clear?'
Here is a conversation about the conflict between the poetic and pragmatic frames of mind - and perhaps Scorsese and his screenwriters' veiled take on how art is losing out in a commercial universe, Gustav being the money-minded producer trying to convince a filmmaker that, in show business, it's the bottom line that counts. Whatever the interpretation, the exchange is hardly something one would expect in a stereoscopic children's fantasy adventure.
Hugo is simply not that kind of a film, just as its source material - The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick - is hardly merely a piece of children's literature.
Hugo is packed with intrigue and action - especially during its first half, when Hugo and Isabelle roam a 1930s Parisian railway station looking for some device that would complete the boy's tribute to his late father - but Scorsese has also delivered what is easily one of his most personal films. Hugo is a celebration of cinema and its pioneers, a fictional-feature attempt to complement the documentaries he made about the American and Italian films that shaped his views on film and filmmaking.
It's evident Scorsese is having fun with the many references he makes to seminal silent films (among others, the clock-hanger scene in Harold Lloyd's Safety Last!), the cultural milieu of those times (James Joyce and Django Reinhardt make fleeting appearances here) as well as his own cinematic rite of passage (with his own self-initiated education in cinema echoed in Hugo's and Isabelle's autodidacticism).
Scorsese's much revisited themes are also present, ranging from his fascination with the making of cities (as in the film's opening scene, in which a depiction of clockwork morphs into a bird's-eye view of Paris) to the importance of sage mentors.
And it's from the latter theme that Hugo's most powerful emotional punch springs. Hugo finally learns the story of the sour pensioner he has acknowledged merely as the owner of the toy shop at the station.
Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley) is, in fact, Georges Melies, the moving-image trailblazer who has seen his early artistic and entrepreneurial promise gone to dust. His recollection of his own life - complete with snippets drawn from the real Melies' vault - reveals a father figure not just to Hugo and Isabelle but the cinematic art in general. By reintroducing Melies' achievements to a modern-day audience in the most accessible manner, Scorsese has created one of the most enchanting films ever produced about the magical power of filmmaking.
Hugo opens today