Hugo review (better than War Horse)

by David Larsen / 14 January, 2012
Martin Scorsese’s magnificent Hugo is everything War Horse isn’t.

I can surely not have seen the best film of 2012 already? Only an idiot would make such a claim, and it seems an ungrateful response to Martin Scorsese’s disciplined vision to say he has me flirting with idiocy. There are some wonderful films in the cinemas, but if your January has room for only one trip to the movies, that’s an easy call. You mustn’t miss Hugo.

The film opens to the chuffing of a steam train, and the image of interlocking gears, whose teeth abruptly dissolve into whirling snowflakes, falling across a panoramic view of Paris. The snowflakes define a three-dimensional field of view without filling it at all densely; if you see the film in 3D – and the gears-to-snow dissolve alone is reason to do so – you’ll feel as though a solid image has melted into a vast gulf of air, leaving you perched above the City of Lights.

The breadth of appeal Scorsese has achieved in Hugo is encapsulated neatly here: it’s one of those coup de cinema effects whose power derives simply from being beautiful, and therefore a small child can enjoy it, but the more films you’ve seen, the more you’ll be stunned by the almost appalling level of skill the image implies. It announces that, after two solid years of false starts and B-plus efforts, someone has finally harnessed the full dramatic power of 3D to a serious, ambitious project. A friend sitting beside me commented, “Weep, Spielberg. Just weep.”

And he should. There are two films in theatres that more or less beg to be compared negatively with Hugo, and he directed both of them. I still urge you to see The Adventures of Tintin, which is a delightful, warm-hearted romp, but it’s hard to argue that Spielberg’s 3D compositions are more than pedestrian once you’ve seen what Scorsese can do with the technology. And War Horse – which, like Hugo, has an early 20th-century European setting, adapts a popular children’s historical novel, and aspires to speak powerfully to the old as well as the young – could double as a showreel for every weakness Spielberg possesses. It’s the least – and, I hope, the last – of his war films.

Sentimental? Check. Superficial? Check. Grandiose? Afraid so. Despite some expertly framed set pieces, the story’s episodic meander manages to suggest that World War I was a rather unpleasant affair lasting several months. The horse of the title is offered to us as a symbol of innocence and strength of will; the unfortunate implication is we need such a symbol.

If Spielberg’s struggling soldiers were granted even as much reality as Saving Private Ryan’s sacrificial band, the organisation of the film around their encounters with this noble beast of burden would have some resonance. Instead, the horse becomes an insulting, reductive emotional proxy: mustn’t engage too closely with the war’s true innocents, the kiddies won’t like it. Here, kiddies, have a horse.

What a contrast with Hugo’s sacrificial eponymous innocent, so breathtakingly well played by Asa Butterfield (The Boy in Striped Pyjamas). An orphan who lives in the crawl-spaces behind the grand facades of the central Paris railway station, Hugo embodies a classic trope of children’s literature: free of adults yet threatened by adults, longing for the familial constraints whose absence allows him heroic stature.

There’s real emotional power here, amplified by a rich array of supporting actors, every one of them (Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Christopher Lee, child sensation Chloe Moretz) ideal for their roles. And the mystery that Hugo is caught up in is not, despite the “world as great machine” metaphor that governs the film’s steampunk imagery, just a mechanical rat-race deployed to give these characters something to do. It arises organically from the ideas at the story’s heart, which, not to give too much away, are also ideas close to Scorsese’s heart. This is in some sense the film he’s been waiting his whole life to make. It was worth waiting for.

HUGO, directed by Martin Scorsese; WAR HORSE, directed by Steven Spielberg.
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