From a content and storyline standpoint it’s a changeup for Scorsese- a softer subject matter, it isn’t violent, modern or set in New York. It’s a period film, Dickensian — an orphan set in London. However, it is clearly one of the most beautiful films of 2011 featuring uncrazy Academy Award wins for best production design and cinematography– another feather in the cap for frequent Scorsese collaborators Dante Ferretti and Robert Richardson. The mise-en-scene specifically is an absolute artistic feat. No detail seems to have been overlooked – from the craft and construction of the visual design and story—and that’s certainly in-line with Scorsese’s body of work. It shares much with The Age of Innocence in this regard and that is one of Scorsese’s finest films
The clock theme mechanism is present from the very outset of the film with a great graphic match of the inner workings of the clock matching with the city of London.
The CGI tracking shots aren’t worthy of too much praise. Spielberg’s Tintin (2011) had a lot of these simulated tracking shots as well and undeniably, with the CGI, it loses something, both in the admiration of the filmmaking craft behind it and, most importantly, the visceral effect on the viewer.
The color scheme and design is glorious. Blues and maroons. Hugo’s sweater carries a stripe of both. Sacha Baron Cohen’s blue police suit. The maroon-like copper of the clocks.
Another fine extensive ensemble of actors here from Scorsese. Jude Law (once again shows up for like one scene in a Scorsese film like he did as Errol Flynn in The Aviator), there’s a one second look at Michael Pitt as a Lumiere brother (this had to tick of Leo as he’s a Leo doppelganger), Emily Mortimer as a flower girl, Michael Stuhlbarg (who is always brilliant), Christopher Lee—again just a talented group.
The film isn’t perfect. There’s banal chase at the opening with Cohen’s character chasing Hugo. The Jude Law death scene is uncharacteristic for Scorsese- almost a throwaway scene.
The clock theme is married to Scorsese’s love for cinema with the scene of Harold Lloyd and his film Safety Last– the feeling of the first time at a cinema and this is, make no mistake, a love-letter to cinema and cinema history (there’s Keaton, Clara Bow, Chaplin, the crane shot from Intolerance in the text) and restoration in general- a major passion of Scorsese. As someone who has dedicated a lot of my life to watching and appreciating/enjoying/studying cinema it’s hard to extricate those feelings when reviewing and evaluating the film here- I will say that Scorsese’s passion for it does come through and that, not the subject of cinema itself, is what is worthy of praise.
Scorsese clearly can set a frame here. I can’t compare it to Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s best work or Ozu but there are 10-15 painterly shots that below in an art museum—an achievement.
The narrative is a success as well. The characters literally and figuratively unlock or fix each other. We have Hugo and the Kingsley character connecting. Mortimer and Cohen, the old couple with the dogs (feels a little like Amelie in this regard).
Another visual triumph is the recreation of some of the sets from Meiles. Again- Scorsese incorporates his color design.
The finale has an accomplished 2 minute tracking shot at the party. It’s really well done. And the satisfying and life-affirming conclusion of this extended family feels a bit more like a Wes Anderson conclusion than a Scorsese one but still- it works and it’s well executed and earned.
A Highly Recommend film- top 10 of the year quality