Invention of Scorsese
Director’s fantastical adaptation of acclaimed adventure novel
An unlikely mix—3-D, Martin Scorsese, a PG rating, a piquant slice of film history, live-action kids cavorting in a CGI Paris circa 1930—yields a charming array of slightly offbeat movie delights, in Scorsese’s adaptation of the award-winning young-adult novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick (no relation to this pseudonymous Selznick).
Scorsese delivers the conventional pleasures of a PG action spectacle—chases and cliffhangers, high-flying camera work, a child’s-eye view of modern (and, in this case, urban) society. It’s the manner of delivery that’s unexpected: This picture is in no great hurry; with its dreamy, contemplative, art-film pacing, it clearly means to savor the details of its spectacle, the history as well as the fantasy.
The title character is Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), a resourceful orphan who lives inside the walls of the Montparnasse train station tending to the station’s huge clocks and staying clear of the menacing Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). Hugo is the story’s hero figure, but in many ways the film’s most crucial character is “Pappa Georges” (Ben Kingsley), the gent with the goatee who runs a toy shop in the station and whose goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) takes a liking to Hugo.
As Hugo eventually learns, “Pappa Georges” is actually Georges Méliès (1861-1938), the magician/filmmaker who pioneered the fantasy film genre in cinema’s infancy and who made more than 500 films, most of them shorts, between 1896 and 1913. After leaving the film business, he was largely a forgotten man until young cinephiles found him working in his train-station shop in the 1930s.
In the Scorsese/Selznick version of Méliès’ story, Hugo is a key player in the rediscovery of Méliès’ work and the restoration of his reputation. Initially, the film’s Méliès seems to be one of the orphan’s several nemeses, but an almost Dickensian chain of events brings them together. Hugo’s deceased father (Jude Law), his loutish uncle (Ray Winstone), an automaton in need of repair, and of course Isabelle figure in all that, as does a dual passion (the characters’ as well as the movie’s) for all that is “magical” in cinema and gadgetry alike.
Part elegiac reverie and part wonder tale, the film is also a toyshop/train-station/mechanical-magic show in which a fairy-tale-like implement, the key to a heart-shaped lock, effectively activates the story’s multiple interlocking parts. (In retrospect, there’s even a kind of poetic logic to the impression, in the early going, that some of the transitional passages are more pleasing than the action scenes to which they are connected.)
Kingsley, Cohen and the two youngsters serve the movie’s iconic purposes well enough. The most sweetly nuanced acting in the film comes from Helen McCrory as Mme. Méliès, aka Mamma Jeanne, and Michael Stuhlbarg is Rene Tabard, the reverential film scholar who seeks out the otherwise forgotten filmmaker. Christopher Lee and Emily Mortimer make pleasingly iconic impressions as, respectively, a philanthropic bookseller and cheerful florist.