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Closely Watched Trains

A railway station in 1930s Paris, and cinema magic.

Dec 12, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 13 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
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How many rhapsodic adjectives can be summoned up to describe Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s new movie in 3D? Well, perfect comes to mind, which is saying something about a film that runs two hours and seven minutes. As I think back over it, there’s not a second that seems out of place, not a performance I would trade, not a bum note in the score, not a shot wrongly conceived.

Movie still from Hugo

Chloë Grace Moretz, Asa Butterfield

Jaap Buitendijk / GK Films

So does magical—an overused and meaningless word, for the most part, except where Hugo is concerned it is the mot juste for a story about an orphaned boy who literally lives within the walls of a Paris train station in the 1930s and keeps its many clocks ticking. The train station and Paris are living, breathing characters in Hugo, as vivid in their way as the grave title character (played by an intense, beautiful, and raw 13-year-old Londoner named Asa Butterfield) and the mean, sad old proprietor of the station’s toy shop (Ben Kingsley, who infuses every moment of screen time with deep and powerful feeling) from whom Hugo steals strange little bits of machinery for a mysterious purpose.

Seeing the city of light dance and blaze and sing in the 1930s from Scorsese’s perspective is yet another indication of just how lame and cliché-riddled Woody Allen’s depiction of it in the 1920s is in the inexplicably popular Midnight in Paris. Scorsese’s movie is what Allen’s is not: enchanting. Unlike Midnight in Paris, there are no supernatural elements, but Hugo does not take place in the real world. The movie is, in part, about the development of the motion picture as an art form, and it is very much in the manner of the early “dream films” in which time bends and skips and every image is both real and unreal at the same time. The mood is heightened, and there is a sense that anything and everything could happen. 

Anything and everything does happen to Hugo, very little of it good, and much of it heartrending. Solitary and isolated, Hugo must be a shadow inside the station because he is fearful of being captured by the local constable (Sacha Baron Cohen, in a yeasty comic performance that suggests yet again he may be the second coming of Peter Sellers) and sent to an orphanage.

As a result, Hugo is silent and watchful, displaying the intent gaze of James Stewart stuck with his broken leg staring out that rear window in the indelible 1954 film of the same name. Scorsese was entirely aware of this homage to Alfred Hitchcock; I only thought of it because he wanted me to. Besotted with movies as he and the title character both are, Scorsese fills Hugo with references to silent comedies (Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last), early French talkies (René Clair’s gorgeous Under the Roofs of Paris, Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning), great train-station pictures (Vincente Minnelli’s The Clock, Billy Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon, David Lean’s Brief Encounter). These references are extras, like little enhancements on a DVD for the cinematically obsessed. If you don’t get them, Hugo works just as well.

Transporting: That is the adjective of all adjectives here. Scorsese, working with screenwriter John Logan from an award-winning 2007 children’s novel by the illustrator Brian Selznick, manages the stunning feat of depositing us directly inside a storybook and keeping us there throughout. And the spectacular use of 3D—easily the most imaginative deployment of this problematic technology I’ve ever seen—has the effect of making it seem almost as though you’re inside a pop-up book. Scorsese even succeeds in using the three-dimensional trickery to create genuinely emotional moments. Near the end, there is a long shot of Ben Kingsley speaking about the title character; as he speaks, Kingsley’s face comes toward you from the screen, his voice hushed and full of emotion, and it is as though he is whispering a profound secret in your ear.

Hugo is an expensive, highly stylized, long, elaborate, and complicated children’s movie, and Hollywood history is littered with the corpses of comparably overproduced fare derived from beloved children’s literature. The miracle here is that Scorsese and Logan manage to maintain the movie’s magical, enchanting, heartrending, transporting spirit from the first moment to the last. It is the greatest achievement of Scorsese’s career, and one of the high-water marks of American cinema.

John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.

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