In his wonderful documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (something any film lover should track down and watch immediately), one idea the great filmmaker discusses is ‘the director as smuggler’.
By this, Scorsese means filmmakers stealthily sneaking their own personal obsessions and idiosyncratic ideas into seemingly conventional movies.
For most of his own brilliant career, the director of Taxi Driver, GoodFellas and The Departed hasn’t really needed to be much of a smuggler – he’s a skilled and passionate enough artist that he’s been able to reconcile his individual voice with the desires of the audience.
But even on the verge of his seventies, Scorsese is still demonstrating that he has a trick or two up his sleeve.
Based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Hugo is probably the first film in his dynamic, sometimes violent and confronting body of work that could be called family-friendly.
And while it’s not necessarily a conventional kids’ movie, it’s still pretty impressive (and impressively sly) that Scorsese has been able to weave in a very persuasive argument for one of his passions, the preservation and restoration of classic films.
Even better, he does it in such a way, making it a central part of a truly involving and touching story, that he may convert many viewers to the cause while enthralling and entertaining them.
Transporting the audience to 1930s Paris with one long, gorgeous shot, Hugo introduces its title character, a young orphan played by Asa Butterfield, whose expressive blue eyes say as much as any line of dialogue ever could.
Living behind the train station clocks, Hugo spends his days avoiding the local cop (an ingeniously funny Sacha Baron Cohen) and scavenging parts for an incomplete ‘mechanical man’, the only memento he has of his late father.
His search for bits and pieces leads him to an ill-tempered old man (Ben Kingsley, giving a rich and complex performance) and his precocious young niece (Chloe Grace Moretz, effortlessly charming), both of whom hold keys to unraveling the mystery of the mechanical man.
It’s a mystery that involves the old man’s glorious but sad past, and Hugo presents it as a time of magical invention, a time when dreams could literally come true.
What’s more, Scorsese’s joy in sharing the wonders of this era with the audience is infectious.
Hugo is a movie with so much to give. Visually it’s dazzling (it’s Scorsese’s first venture into 3D, and he revels in it), thematically it’s engaging, emotionally it’s close to overflowing. It’s a marvel.