— Author: Charley Brady —
—My brother worked as a carpenter, building sets for Georges Méliès. One day he took me to visit the studio. It was like something out of a dream. The whole building was made of glass. In reality, this was to let in the sunlight necessary for filming; but to my eyes, it was nothing short of an enchanted castle, a palace made of glass.
—If you ever wondered where your dreams come from, look around. This is where they’re made.
— the characters of René Tabard and Georges Méliès in the film Hugo.
If you will graciously permit me, I am going to presume on your patience with a strong – a very strong – recommendation for a film that you may have missed out on when it hit the big screens back in 2011. If you did see it then I applaud you. There weren’t many of us and the film lost a fortune at the box office, despite being nominated for eleven Academy Awards.
It is now showing on Netflix and if you are even simply glancing over this website then you probably have at least some interest in the glory of old silent movies. Or even just movies in general.
And if you do heed this recommendation and sit down to immerse yourself in the beauty that is Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece, Hugo, then I have no doubt that your gratitude will know no bounds and I can look forward to gifts of cash money, fresh-baked pastries filled with liquid chocolate and wishes for a long and happy life. I can also guarantee that by the time the end credits roll, you will have an enormously happy smile on your lips – and perhaps, as I did, a nostalgic tear rolling down your cheek for a time long gone. Gone… well, perhaps; but commemorated and remembered here each week, in Galway’s Silent Cinema.
It is set in Paris in 1931, following that difficult period when the silents were giving way to the talkies; and this transition is the only real resemblance to last month’s cinema release of Babylon. Whereas that divisive film focused on the seedier aspects of the era, Hugo utterly rejoices in the positive power of film in a way that only a true film lover like Scorsese could do.
With a screenplay by John Logan, it is based on Brian Selznick’s award-winning book The Invention of Hugo Cabret; and it tells the story of the young boy of the title (played by Asa Butterfield) who avoids being sent to the local orphanage by living alone in the walls of the Gare Montparnasse railway station in the French capital. There he tends to the clocks that his drunken uncle (Ray Winston) had minded before him.
The opening twelve minutes before the title card appears is a marvel and a mini-film in its own right. We are introduced to the main images that will run throughout Scorsese’s picture: trains pulling into a station; clocks big and small; things and people broken or waiting to be fixed. And in the middle of this tour de force, the director delights his audience by deftly showing us the main characters in a sequence worthy of Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Those twelve minutes, with their controlled, intelligent, and sparing use of CGI (a process I normally dislike) are a triumph.
Hugo is in possession of an automaton – a mechanical man that his father (Jude Law) had been working on when he died. And he is determined to fix it, as he is with so many other things and people. However, he lacks the heart-shaped key that the tin man needs in order to make him whole. It’s a charming nod to the Tin Man of Oz fame, in only one of several references to that magical land. And interestingly the dreaded Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) is also a Tin Man of sorts – and dreadfully in need of a heart if he only knew it.
The lonely boy is befriended by a young girl, Isabel (Chloë Grace Moretz), who introduces him to the joys of the library.
Where are we going? he asks her. Only to the most wonderful place on earth, she replies. It’s Neverland and Oz and Treasure Island, all wrapped into one.
And what a library! It is an enchanting, cavernous place where books of all sizes are stacked in what appears to be cheerfully organized chaos. Myself, I would never leave it, especially as the Librarian is a kindly Christopher Lee.
He said it was like seeing his dreams in the middle of the day.
And in return Hugo takes her to an equally magical land, a silent cinema showing nothing other than Harold Lloyd in the 1923 Safety Last. And it is fascinating to consider how brilliant the idea of picking out films that reinforce the motifs of Hugo: here we see Harold in that famous scene where he is hanging from a clock face high above the street; and later we will be shown that famous early film A Train Arrives into the Station, from 1895. It all adds a delicious richness to an already brilliant film.
But the true joy for film enthusiasts is when we learn that Isabel is the niece of Georges Méliès, that early film pioneer, director, writer, and star of over 500 films and a genius who was completely forgotten for a long period, just as he is here. (And it’s surprising how much the film sticks reasonably close to the historical facts.)
Played by Ben Kingsley, it actually takes more than one viewing to appreciate just how subtle his portrayal of that towering genius of yesteryear really is.
And the two young stars are pure joy! It was obvious even more than a decade ago that Butterfield and Moretz were destined to go on to great things. The chemistry and depth of feeling between them are wonderful to watch.
This is a film for the dreamers among us, and it is a film that should be seen by the wonderful people who have supported the Silent Cinema Galway since it opened last August. And how marvelous that Martin Scorsese – a man that we owe so much for his tireless work in film restoration - has made a brilliant work that touches on that theme.
Many of the scenes that Scorsese chooses to show from those bygone days are ones that have already been shown here, in Dominick Street – or that will be shown.
And Méliès speaks for us as well as himself when he says:
I address you all tonight as you truly are: wizards, mermaids, travelers, adventurers, magicians.
Come and dream with me.