Hugo and Redemptive Imagination

Father Danny, a visiting pastor, is giving his homily entitled “Re-storied Imagination” and I am not listening. The sermon title alone sends my mind hurtling back to last night’s family movie viewing of Hugo. I shift in the pew, feeling just a tad exposed, not by the eloquent sermon — which I’m sure it is — but by the movie’s exposure of my insufficient imagination. The length and breadth that the movie’s makers went to redeem the world of Hugo Cabret dwarfed my own imagination. 

Although it’s an entire season since the Oscars, I’m just now getting around to seeing many of the Best Picture nominees, now that they have been released on DVD. And Hugo was a great choice for our family movie night. The seven- and eleven-year-olds enjoyed it just as much as Dave and I did. We snuggled on the couch with our popcorn and eventually put away our electronic devices. Rarely does a film do that for all of us.

Apart from the imagery, which was stunning, and the main plot, which was beautifully rendered, the part that I find myself returning to this morning is the sub-story of the train station inspector. The guard (Sacha Baron Cohen) is a wounded WWI veteran with a rigid leg brace, a fierce dog, and a penchant for sending unaccompanied children to the local asylum.

Although I have read several reviews that actually find the portrayal of the menacing station guard to be the one downfall of the movie, calling his performance overwrought, I found Cohen’s narrative to be the most compelling. Though simply drawn, we watch his development from a man who’s comically tyrannical to one who’s listened to, loved, and eventually able to loosen his grip on his need to deliver harsh justice.

Unlike Inspector Javert in Les Miserables, the station guard in Hugo was not destroyed by the revelation that the law was surpassed by grace. Just as Hugo discerns that every invention is designed with a purpose, so — the movie tells us — each person was designed with a purpose. Once the station guard (like the automaton Hugo is working on) finds his purpose, his heart (like his leg brace) is greased to live.

Throughout the movie, the history of the station guard unfolds. We find out that he was an orphan, caught by police and put into a home for wayward children. The only care he received was his brutal army training, which he came to believe every wayward boy should be subjected to. His soul was rusted, much like his leg brace, and locked, unable to move toward others. In the midst of a pursuit, the brace’s hinge would catch and he’d become immobile. His race toward justice locked him up.

Toward the end of the movie, I wanted justice. This evil man who was bent on punishing poor, fatherless children must be punished. He deserved the fate that I was sure the movie maker’s had in store for him.

Apparently, however, my imagination was not as large as those of screenwriter John Logan and director Martin Scorsese.

The fate the film laid out for the guard was the fruit of a re-storied imagination, one that cared for the redemption of all things, not just the protagonist and the despairing ex-film maker. Redemption swept across the entire train station from the lonely flower seller to an elderly cafe owner whose dachshund scared away every potential suitor with its growls, then all the way into the antagonist’s rigid heart. It’s the flower seller’s attention to the station guard that eventually melts his heart. She listens to his story and, in turn, he finds love both given and received.

The vocation of the artist, it seems to me, is to impart to the world the gift of a redemptive imagination, a phrase coined by Thoreau. Makoto Fujimura, a contemporary American artist, often speaks on the need for beauty, truth, and creativity — that it’s the artist’s role to find beauty where beauty is often hidden. It’s “culture-care” in place of “culture-wars.”

But how do we apply a redemptive imagination in our current lives, not just in our art? Can the memories and events that seem only to highlight the destructive forces in our world be reclaimed as part of a larger story of redemption?

We all want justice. It is our right to demand it. But that morning in that pew, struggling to expand my imagination with the movie I had enjoyed the night before, I remembered the Station Inspector and expressed a simple hope: that my desire for justice doesn’t lock me up.

Sarah Braud is a freelance writer and artist living in Franklin, Tennessee, with photographer David Braud and their two children, Ellie and Atticus. Sarah is graduating this summer with an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. You can read more of Sarah's writing at

Inspiration and the Mountain

Tell Me a Story, Louis L’Amour