Review: Hugo – With Exclusive Insight From Sandy Powell

Starring: Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Asa Butterfield
Directed By: Martin Scorsese

Acclaimed director Martin Scorsese concocts a cracking children’s fantasy in homage to silent movie magician Georges Méliès; his beloved Hugo barely drops a cog in its methodically realised mechanical world.

Scorsese has unmistakably made a children’s movie. Some may argue not as it is crammed full of references to early moving pictures that only adults could probably recognise. Yet Scorsese’s purpose, like that of his hero Méliès, is to entertain and inform. For all the po-faced wittering by cinema scholars that Hugo is meant for them, one has to wonder if deep down Scorsese really cares if any adults see the film at all.

The blue of the Station Inspector’s uniform is deliberately intensified. According to costume designer Sandy Powell, ‘It was was designed specifically to be seen from afar. I experimented with various shades of blue and green before hitting on this one, which obviously isn’t an accurate French railway worker’s colour, but works in terms of telling the story. Also the treatment of the colour throughout the first half of the film accentuated the blues in particular.’

Hugo could crudely and incorrectly be described as a ‘costume movie’. It is period (Paris, 1931 then flashback to early 1900s), fantastical and populated by kooky, literally colourful characters. Although this is more than cinematic pantomime; the persistent excellence of costume designer Sandy Powell (three times Academy Award winner) resides in seemingly minor details. Exclusively for Clothes on Film, she explains her reasoning.

The stripes motif on orphan Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) and his new friend, Méliès’ goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), for example, helps to distinguish their fast moving bodies in the packed train station, plus continually realigns our grown up viewpoint with that of a child. Powell confirms her intention:

This is not only Hugo and Isabelle’s stripes, but Monsieur Frick’s (Richard Griffiths) scarf, Monsieur Labisse’s (Christopher Lee) suit and Madame Emilie’s (Frances de la Tour) zig-zag patterned coat and skirt were all for a specific reason. I wanted the characters to be seen amongst the crowds in the station, especially since a lot of the time they are seen from Hugo’s POV from up high.

‘I actually put Monsieur Labisse in a suit he might have owned for twenty years’ states Powell. ‘The diversity of looks was also to establish the transient life in a railway station. It covers all walks of life, ages etc. We did intend to set it within the specific period, but most people still today would be wearing clothes maybe over five years old, especially older people.’

Habits of these older characters die hard, such as Méliès (Ben Kingsley) always tightly buttoned into his formal stiff white collar, bookstore owner Monsieur Labisse wearing spats and aging romantic Madame Emilie still in her very twenties iconic upturned brim cloche hat. This is how elderly people especially dress, not in the latest fashions but often repeated outfits they have worn for years. Clothes come to define us, whether we like it or not. Méliès is a case in point; A broken but stubborn old man stuck in his ways yet unable to face the past.

The look of Hugo has been described as 1930s which is not strictly true as the film is set in 1931 when most people would still be wearing their winter coats and hats from the 1920s. Obviously there are some leaner longer early 30’s looks going on as well but we tried to put those on the younger more wealthy or fashionable types. I really don’t think a look for a decade can be summed up until at least half way through.

Note even the sleeves on Hugo’s Norfolk style jacket are too short, implying he has grown out of it since his father died, suggesting the passage of time and his dire circumstances; living alone in a train station on scraps, scurrying between levels like a rat. Hugo could not be any lower when we meet him. His existence is Dickensian in the worst sense of the word.

Recurring patterns are worn in some capacity by several of the cast, particularly noticeable on Hugo and Isabelle. Powell confirms, ‘I wanted the characters to be instantly recognisable, like illustrations in a children’s book, where characters usually stay in one outfit throughout so they can be remembered, especially since none of the incidental characters have a great deal of dialogue.’

Hugo dazzles constantly but quite rightly saves most of its energy for a rousing three stage climax. Some early scenes drag as momentum dips, though this is because Scorsese was so keen to allow his young actors room to breathe. No performance or character grates, even the potentially troublesome comic interludes of the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), vibrantly attired in unreal, picture-book blue. However it is Kingsley’s emotionally damaged Méliès who strikes deepest into our hearts. After so many accomplishments dashed and seemingly forgotten; to feel nothing for this man is to feel nothing for life itself.

A celebration of design, acting and storytelling, Hugo is Martin Scorsese’s 3D monument to wonder and excitement for all those still in knee socks or short trousers.

Hugo was released in the UK on 2nd December and U.S. on 23rd November.

© 2011 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.