The watching of Hugo was not so much about the film, more about the event. And I suspect that was true for just about everyone in the cinema. The event being the night of the Royal Film Premiere, something that has happened every year since 1946.
As Leicester Square is being currently turned into dust, the red carpet was a somewhat obscure affair, which took one round the houses, past several pubs, full of people with pints in their hands wandering what the fuss was about. As well they might. In spite of some well-tooled paparazzi, there was a shortage of luminaries. Damian Lewis, whose wife is in the film, seemed to be getting more attention than perhaps he’s used to, largely because the next most famous personages not in the cast were the latest graduates of X Factor. The security was desultory. As I took my place I speculated about how easy it would have been to have followed in the footsteps of Andrei Bely or Conrad’s anti-heroes. Which is perhaps reassuring. Once in the auditorium the entertainment consisted of watching a screen which showed live footage of nothing happening outside. The comedy was supplied when the hired compere’s rehearsal of her lines (something about David Niven) was mistakenly picked up by her live mike, to the audience’s delight. It wasn’t quite up there with Gordon Brown’s “bigoted woman” or Reagan’s plan to nuke the USSR, but it helped to pass the time. A few buglers took the stage, looking lost. They did some bugling which seemed to make them feel better. The highpoint was when the cinema’s Wurlitzer was used for the national anthem, giving it a kind of Blackpool-pier variety flavour.
As for the film, Scorsese’s latest… It has to be said that he uses 3-D more effectively than Herzog and, so I was told, Tim Burton. At its heart, Hugo is a paean to the art of cinema, with the narrative revolving around a young boy’s re-discovery of the forgotten George Méliès, played by Ben Kingsley. At the end of the film there was the strangest use of 3-D I’ve encountered yet as the fictional, cinematic Kingsley made a speech in almost exactly the same spot the actual flesh-and-blood Kingsley had made a speech introducing the film earlier. Life imitating art imitating…
There’s some lovely use of Méliès’ films, the discreet nod of a veteran director to cinema’s capacity for delight and improvisation. All of which makes this a meritable project for Scorsese’s first use of 3-D. The pity is that the magic is all in the technology: apart from Sacha Baron Cohen’s droll turn as a vindictive station master, there was a shortage of the sort of charm that Jeunet might have brought to it, in his heyday (or even Billy Wilder). Everything works, but in a strictly functional manner that’s ultimately un-involving: the most memorable moments are provided by Méliès and Harold Lloyd.
Still, the night was not really about the film, it was all about the occasion. One wondered if its low-key tone was reflective of the British indifference to the art of cinema: pitch up, watch something made by a North American which stops you thinking for a couple of hours, and then escape by any means possible. In our case this involved being ushered out through a dangerously-packed fire escape, men in black tie shouting into their mobile phones, glamour at a premium. To be thrown out into the Soho night just in time to catch last orders.