Josh Reviews Wes Anderson’s Adaptation of The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar
It seems to have been released with little fanfare, so you might not know that Wes Anderson has directed a beautiful short (39 minutes) adaptation of Roald Dahl’s story The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar for Netflix!
This short film is delightful, a perfect marriage of Wes Anderson’s unique style with the tone of Roald Dahl’s writing. Mr. Dahl’s stories are often characterized by their wit and whimsy and boundless imagination. At the same time, there is often a darkness and a sadness lurking not-too-far underneath the surface; this is what gives the stories their soul; their depth and their richness. Exactly the same could be said for the films of Mr. Anderson. I adored Mr. Anderson’s previous adaptation of a Roald Dahl story, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and this new adaptation of The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar does not disappoint.
Benedict Cumberbatch stars as the titular Henry Sugar, a wealthy man who has been drifting through life until he stumbles upon a remarkable chronicle written by Dr. Chatterjee (Dev Patel) of his encounter with an incredible performer named Imdad Khan (Ben Kingsley), who could see without the use of his eyes. Khan described the years of mental training that went into developing this skill; to so focus his mind on one single thought. Henry Sugar decides to devote himself towards attempting to replicate this feat. At first his goal is merely to win a fortune at a casino; then he shifts to a less self-centered purpose.
This short film is simply marvelous. The actors are all wonderful. Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock, Doctor Strange) is effortless at playing wealthy and arrogant. Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire, The Newsroom) does a great job delivering rapid-fire dialogue as the intense and fascinated doctor. The great Ben Kingsley (Gandhi, Sneakers, Shutter Island, Hugo, Iron Man Three) is wonderful at portraying the matter-of-fact Imdad Khan, who has achieved an incredible skill. And Ralph Fiennes is marvelous at playing an elderly Roald Dahl, who narrates sections of the story.
As usual for Wes Anderson’s work, every moment of this short-film is beautifully and creatively designed. The sets are marvelous, and the film is packed with beautifully clever stage-like transitions from one scene to the next, in which elements of the set, props, and backdrop slide this way or that to move us from one location to another. It’s a visual marvel.
Many of Mr. Anderson’s recent movies have been designed in the manner of a Russian nesting doll, with multiple stories layered one within the other. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, for example, the film is a series of stories being told, moving us backwards through time from the present day to a time around the second World War. We see a similar structure here, in which Roald Dahl sits in his writing hut and tells us the story of Henry Sugar, who finds the text written by Dr. Chatterjee, who describes his meeting with Imdad Khan, who then tells yet another story of how he met the Great Yogi who trained him in his mental arts. It’s a wonderful house-of-cards structure of stories within stories.
In a similar fashion, Mr. Anderson’s films have often been designed to remind us of the artifice of the stories being told. In his recent (wonderful) film Asteroid City, the main story of the film is framed as a version of a play being performed in a theatre. So we see there too an intentional theatrical artificiality to the depiction of the story of the film, not to mention more layers within layers, as at various points we step out of the main story to move back in time to see scenes of the play (which represents the story of the film) being written… and the there is a further layer as the whole thing is presented as black-and-white TV special, looking back on the life and career of the author of the play! Here in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, the act of repeatedly cutting back to Roald Dahl reminds us repeatedly that this tale we’re watching is a story written by the author Roald Dahl. I found this narrative playfulness to be delightful fun, and I enjoyed the way Mr. Anderson skillfully guided us in and out of these various layers of tales within tales.
Mr. Anderson also utilized a new device here, in which the various characters actually speak the accompanying narration from their part of the story, in addition to their dialogue. So, for instance, when Dev Patel’s Dr. Chatterjee is interacting with Imdad Khan, he interjects a lot of “I said”s and “he said”s into his own dialogue. It’s a strange and unusual approach, but I loved how that further played into the sense of artificiality of the tale, reminding us that we’re watching a written story being performed for us. This might have bogged down the tale, but Mr. Anderson’s playful and skilled hand at the helm keeps things moving, and these talented actors are a lot of fun to watch as they perform and repeatedly step in and out of their characters.
When I finished watching The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, I was delighted to discover that Mr. Anderson had adapted three additional Roald Dahl stories for Netflix! (I wonder why these weren’t released together, as an anthology film consisting of several stories, similar to Mr. Anderson’s recent film The French Dispatch? That might have been fun!) These three adaptations are shorter, around twenty minutes each.
My favorite was Poison, set in India, in which a deadly poisonous snake slithers onto the chest of an unfortunate British man and falls asleep there. The man is Harry, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, and he’s forced to lie perfectly still (lest he wake up the snake, who would then promptly bite and kill him) while desperately beckoning for help from young Woods (Dev Patel). Woods summons a local doctor, Dr. Ganderbai (Ben Kingsley), and the two attempt to find a way to remove the snake without waking it up. This short is a wonderful exercise in slowly ratcheting tension. It’s marvelous. (My only complaint is the ending, which was a little too abrupt for my taste.)
In The Swan, a young British lad is tormented and nearly killed by two local bullies. Rupert Friend plays the adult version of the boy, Peter, who was telling us the story. This was my least favorite of the four shorts, because this was the one where I felt the artificiality of having characters tell us the story in addition to acting it out tipped over the line into too much telling without showing. I think I’d have preferred to have seen the boy, Peter, go through these dramatic events. I feel like then I’d have engaged with him and his plight. Here, though, I felt kept at a distance, because we see very little of the young Peter. Instead, that young actor basically stands next to Rupert Friend as he narrates the story. It didn’t quite work for me.
The final short was The Rat Catcher. Ralph Fiennes plays a peculiar rat-catcher who is hired to eliminate the rats plaguing a small English village. Ralph Fiennes’ performance as this rat-catcher is wonderful; so bizarre and unique!! I loved Mr. Fiennes’ work here; it elevated this short into greatness. The weakness of the short for me was, as in The Swan, a little too much emphasis on the artificiality. There were a number of moments in which the performers mimed holding props; I’m not sure why they didn’t actually utilize real props. There are also a number of moments in which Ralph Fiennes’ rat-catcher is holding up an obviously fake rat. That was clearly done on purpose, but then later they showed us a stop-motion animated rat for one sequence and it was wonderful and beautiful! Suddenly I was locked into this rat and what was happening. I think if they’d taken the time and trouble to animate the rat in the other moments it was seen on-screen, it would have brought the story to better life.
All four of these shorts are enjoyable, and well worth your time. But the main event is for sure The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, which I found to be a true delight from start to finish. Give it a watch on Netflix!
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