Film review: Hugo

“We’re sitting here in 3D. We are in 3D. We see in 3D. So why not?”

This is how Martin Scorsese justified his decision to film Hugo using stereoscopic cameras. I find it a startling quote – an esteemed cinema connoisseur displaying a fundamental misunderstanding of film. Cinema doesn’t seek to perfectly emulate reality; we may be sitting here in 3D, but we don’t instantly change our physical perspectives like the sudden shift of a jump cut, and our most poignant moments aren’t (usually) accompanied by grand orchestral scores. Film is a medium with its own conventions and traditions, not replicable in the real world. To aim to dutifully represent life as we truly experience it would be to create not a film at all, but a piece of live performance art. This, I propose, is the conclusion Scorsese would have come to had he taken his own argument seriously.

Which is a lengthy way of saying, Scorsese’s remarks hadn’t convinced me that Hugo would be any more valid in 3D than the slew of films we’ve recently seen shot in, or retrofitted into, the format. So it was with high expectations for the film, but low expectations for the presentation, that I entered the cinema.

My expectations were, broadly, met. It’s finely played by all involved, particularly lead Asa Butterfield (who laughs and cries believably and doesn’t often ov-er-en-un-ci-ate like many young performers) and Ben Kingsley (who is a delight to watch making whole silent speeches with little more than his eyes and mustache), and it accurately strikes a difficult balance between slapstick and sentimentality – I often found myself touched (though never moved). It’s beautifully lit, all nostalgic blues and golds, and even the dust that drifts through so many shots is romantic.

And as a love letter to the imagination, to cinema, to the wonder of the movie, Hugo succeeds with aplomb. Here it’s at its best, brightly, lovingly and indeed educationally telling the tale of the moving picture with all the sound and colour at its disposal.

The film isn’t without fat; there are amusing but superfluous scenes involving minor characters (two cute romances and an odd friendship with a librarian) that I suspect a more objective writer or editor, with less attachment to the source material, would have left out; the explanation to the film’s final mystery drags and feels like a necessary but forced intrusion to an otherwise quite well-paced plot; and most of the shots noticeably taking advantage of the 3D format arguably are included for the sake of the 3D, not for the sake of the film.

Which rather neatly brings us to the use of 3D. I haven’t mentioned it till now, in an attempt to prevent it distracting from the rest of the film. Yet that is largely what it does, when it has any effect at all. More importantly, even if the effect wasn’t so distracting, it was almost entirely unnecessary. I counted seven shots during which the third dimension added to the film’s poignancy, power or entertainment. Most were delightfully subtle  – a flipbook sketch quietly coming free from the page; the sinister station controller’s face enlarging into the cinema itself as his anger peaked. But seven good shots and hundreds of distracting, dim, alienating ones is not a complimentary ratio.

I wanted to post this review now, rather than waiting for the DVD release, as I had so much to say about the use of 3D, and most home viewers will (I assume) watch the film in 2D. They can discard the previous paragraph as irrelevant and enjoy a film that, despite some simple flaws, is concise, fun, touching, and smart – and ever-so-slightly better than the one I saw in the cinema.

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