At first blush, the man who made Taxi Driver and Goodfellas might seem an unlikely choice for this endeavor, but the story of Hugo is tied to the earliest days of cinema, and that brings out the very best in Scorsese. John Logan’s screenplay captures the special qualities of his source material and expands upon it by painting a vibrant picture of the Paris train station where much of the action takes place, circa 1930.
The director’s approach to 3-D demands use of the overworked word “immersive.” Yet that is the only accurate way to describe the way we lose ourselves in this film, with its spinning gears, mechanisms, and pixie dust in the air. One remarkable—and deceptively simple—shot of the imperious station inspector (played with just the right touch of hauteur by Sacha Baron Cohen) elicited gasps of delight at the screening I attended, because it uses 3-D to help define the character in a cunning visual metaphor, and has fun with it to boot. When the time comes to recreate the early days of moviemaking in France, the film rises to Olympian heights.
Scorsese has said that he found inspiration in the works of René Clair and Jean Vigo, but the most direct connection for the railroad depot scenes is the work of Jacques Tati, in particular Playtime. Tati built an entire cityscape for that movie and choreographed every detail within the frame. Scorsese has done the same, filling the train station with colorful characters played by such expert performers as Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour, and Emily Mortimer. (The imposing Christopher Lee plays a gentlemanly bookseller.) He has even appropriated Tati’s use of sound: people who are speaking casually, away from the camera, are heard in the distance, not “miked” like actors in the foreground.
As always, Scorsese works with a gifted team of collaborators, led by cinematographer Robert Richardson, visual effects supervisor Rob Legato, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, production designer Dante Ferretti, costume designer Sandy Powell, and composer Howard Shore. With Brian Selznick’s illustrations as their guide, they sought to animate and illuminate his story; with a 3-D monitor on the set, they could adjust every shot to make the best use of depth and foreground pieces.
I’m not crazy about the advertising for Hugo, but I am hopeful that good reviews and strong word-of-mouth will make it the success it has every right to be. This is a rare family-friendly film that offers sensory pleasures and plenty of food for thought. It might send some young people to Selznick’s book; in a perfect world, it would inspire viewers of all ages to seek out the magical films of Georges Méliès. At the very least it will show audiences what a great director can achieve when he is truly inspired by his material.