2011 / Best Director / Best Picture

Film #470: Hugo (2011)

It’s very rare that a director will have films nominated across five decades but in this last section of the blog we have two men who have done just that. We’ll deal with one of them later on, but in this post we’ll look at a man named Martin Scorsese. From his first nomination back in the 1970s for Taxi Driver, the Academy has had a growing love for Scorsese culminating in his Best Director win for The Departed. This relationship carried into the 2010s with two of Scorsese’s films featuring in the Best Picture category and I have to say that these two movies couldn’t be any more different.

We start with a film that I would say isn’t typical Scorsese partly because it’s rated PG. Hugo is Scorsese’s tribute to early cinema and was his first film to be screened in 3D. The Hugo of the title is a young boy who lives in a Parisian train station in 1932 and is in charge of making sure the clock runs on time. From the start of the film Hugo is portrayed as a lonely young man who is looking for a connection to his late father. He believes rebuilding the automaton that his father gave him before he died will reveal a message from him. Unfortunately finding the parts means that he has to steal from the stall of Monsieur George, a cantankerous man who runs the station’s toy store. George catching Hugo in the act sets off a chain of events which eventually changes the life of both for the better. Whilst the first half of the film plays like a family adventure movie the second half is more of a celebration of silent movies when it’s revealed that the toy store holder is in fact legendary director George Méliès. I personally feel as if the film slows down when Scorsese explains the importance of Méliès’ films and whilst I enjoyed it I’m not sure how much the younger members of the audience would’ve appreciated it. Thankfully the film speeds up again in its final third when Hugo finally catches the attention of the station’s inspector who is obsessed with sending abandoned children to the local audience. The scene in which Hugo is almost hit with a train is visually splendid and feels like it both belongs in the plot and works with the 3D format; a statement that I couldn’t use when describing anything that happened in the lacklustre Avatar.

Talking of Avatar, its director James Cameron admitted that Scorsese’s film was the one that had made the best use of 3D up to that point. I’d more than concur with Cameron as, even though I didn’t watch Hugo in 3D, I could appreciate how he’d properly decided how to utilise the medium. I felt totally immersed in the world of Hugo from the second that Robert Richardson’s camera guides you into the world of the train station. This bustling world is lovingly created by a brilliant production design team who rightfully won an Oscar for their work on the film. Hugo is indeed a visual work with each costume suiting its respective character from the Station Inspector’s vivid blue uniform to Hugo’s slightly ruffled look. Howard Shore’s Oscar-nominated score also gave Hugo the feel of a silent movie as he gave each character their own distinctive tune. Throughout the film I was trying to imagine what it would’ve been like if there had been no spoken words and I believe that it would’ve worked quite well. That’s not a knock against John Logan who brilliantly adapted Brain Selznick’s children’s novel for the screen.
Of the cast, I thought young Asa Butterfield did an admirable job as Hugo as he was likeable without being too annoying which I find is a rarity for a child actor. Similarly impressive was Ben Kingsley who, as Méliès, kept the audience in the dark to his true identity till the big reveal. Scorsese rounded off the cast with a host of great British performers who included Sacha Baron Cohen as the Station Inspector and the wonderful Helen McRory as Méliès’ cautious wife. Hugo went on to win the most Oscars of the night at that year’s ceremony picking up honours for cinematography, art direction, visual effects, sound editing and sound mixing. I feel all of these wins were deserved as Hugo was a lovely film that never patronised its young audience and more than anything found a worthwhile use for 3D.


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