Deborah Ross

A la recherche du temps perdu

A la recherche du temps perdu
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Hugo 3D is Martin Scorsese’s first child-friendly family film and the first thing to say about Martin Scorsese’s first child-friendly family film is that it is a visual wonder: rich, lush, beautiful, gorgeous. But the second thing to say is nothing else is as exciting as the look of it and if there is a third thing it is this: Hugo himself is rather boringly bland and I didn’t much care for him. Honestly, you can wait ages for one thing to say and then three come along at once. Isn’t that always the way?

The source material is the graphic novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick about a small orphaned boy (played here by Asa Butterfield) who lives a secret life keeping the clocks running at Montparnasse station in 1930s Paris, and the opening shot may be the most stunning opening shot in cinema ever as Scorsese’s camera rushes thrillingly along the train tracks and across the bustling concourse and halts at the gigantic station clock, where small, bright-blue eyes peep out from behind the number four. It’s an absolute adrenalin rush of an opening. It’s a thrill of an opening. It is the opening of openings. ‘Wow,’ you will say to yourself. It is live action combined with computer wizardry at its wondrous best, and the film is never as good as when it is in the station, with Hugo amidst his cogs and gears and levers and cranks — who knew cogs and gears and levers and cranks could generate such magic? — or on that packed concourse, which pulsates with life and various cameos. These include Frances de la Tour as a café owner and Richard Griffiths as the man who would be courting her if only her dachshund hadn’t taken against him so. Meanwhile, Sacha Baron Cohen plays a comical cop who isn’t that comical, actually.

If there is a fourth thing to say about this film it might be this: all attempts at humour fall thuddingly flat. I don’t know if Scorsese has a sense of humour — unlike Meryl Streep, I have never met him, nor has he ever made me a pie — but it is not in evidence here.

Still, it’s a pity the action goes beyond the station, as it does. Through a serpentine, far-fetched plot, and the presence of an automaton with a missing key — don’t ask; just accept this is the way it is — Hugo  gets involved with Georges Méliès (a sombre Ben Kingsley, as if Ben Kingsley could be anything but; as if he could be a high-spirited go-go dancer). Méliès is a true historical figure and the cinema pioneer who built the first film studio near Paris in 1896, and, once he is on the scene, suddenly we are in a different film altogether; now we are in a film about the history of early film and the importance of preserving films and, basically, the sanctity of film. Oh, boy. This may be a subject close to Scorsese’s heart but I don’t think the average kid is going to be much impressed with an expanded sequence detailing the making of the first sci-fi movie in 1902, and for adults it’s rather like being trapped in a lecture hall. Hugo is almost entirely abandoned during these sequences, although I don’t blame Scorsese for that.

Hugo is a nice enough fellow, but little else, and Butterfield plays him with only two expressions: blank, and slightly less blank. Chloë Grace Moretz has been drafted in as Isabelle, Hugo’s friend and Georges’s goddaughter, and, although she was terrific in Kick-Ass, here she overacts giddily. It’s a movie in which the humans feel more mechanical than the machines.

I think I know what Scorsese is trying to say. This is a film about yearning and memory and mourning a lost past — Hugo is mourning the loss of his family, Georges is mourning his former achievements — and how you can fix a human, as you might a clock, with the right parts but, while sentimental, it’s emotionally flat, and padded out with pell-mell, grindingly repetitive chases rather than any real jeopardy. Hugo is good value visually but poor value dramatically. That is the fifth thing I had to say and now you have had your lot.