For a great director, Martin Scorsese finds himself pigeonholed. His 90s crime sagas Goodfellas and Casino, are endearing and enduring pictures, despite the latter feeling like a remake of the former. Perhaps mindful of his marvellous monotony, he is occasionally impelled to move left-field. So now he has embraced 3D.
Far from the last bastion of the three-dimensional resistance, it is nevertheless a drastic departure for the Queens-born New Yorker. Hugo is an explicit family film, with Scorsese playing the little kid whose eyes witness a romanticised 1930s Paris.
Orphan Hugo Cabaret (Asa Butterfield) lives within the walls of a train station and is vexed by the enigma of an unfinished automaton, which is linked to his late father. Suspicion is then aroused when the station’s cantankerous toy stall owner Georges Méliès (Sir Ben Kingsley) becomes disturbed by the boy’s pictorial notebook of the contraption. Recruiting Georges’ loquacious goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), Hugo ventures to seek the clues to unlock the mystery.
Although a love letter to cinema, this is also a lecture that feels both pretentious and pushy. ‘You’ve never been to the movies?’ Hugo sneers at Isabelle. Not every child, impoverished or not, ventured to the cinema in the 1920s – its place in culture then was insignificant and interrupted by the Great War.
Treated to a brief history of early film’s power and majesty, it would be interesting to know how this will chime with younger viewers. Even many adults will find the filmmakers’ nostalgia of esoteric cinema too high-brow.
Butterfield himself is part of the problem with his haughtiness. Deeply affecting in 2008s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, he struggles to be likable despite the usually certified sympathy-inducing issue of being an orphan. He delivers lines starchily and while this is expected thanks to Hugo’s miserable circumstances, he discovers happiness recurrently yet is unable to set hearts leaping.
Everyone is however handicapped by what is a deeply underwhelming story. The reveal behind the mystique is part of the sermon, and rarely do you care whether Hugo finally discovers the secret behind his father’s parting gift.
Detachment to the emotion is briefly quelled by the brilliance of Kingsley, who radiates the screen with his enigmatic façade and complexity. He and on-screen wife Helen McCrory are an inspired pair, offering palpable poignancy as they return to the past and its pleasures.
Fleshing out the characters is troublesome because it is unnecessary. Scorsese has assembled a talented British cast which is superfluous; their inclusions are a poor effort in adding meat to a thin bone. Sacha Baron Cohen, a not-very-sinister villain, is another character tagged with ‘sympathetic upbringing’ in a forceful bid for redemption.
Unfortunately engaging human elements and thrill factors are rare. Scorsese’s dissolving effects, mise-en-scène and camerawork are virtuoso, but limited to the confines of a train station. An unnatural and gratuitous set-piece occurs for the sake of the format, and thereby lets the cat out of the sack; a tale becomes stumped for magical moments.