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All movie lovers can recognize the work of filmmaker Wes Anderson by now. It’s that unique and distinctive, in look and tone. His latest film is the first in a series of four shorts for Netflix based on stories by author Roald Dahl. Just like with 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, the pairing works. The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is delightfully engaging across many elements.
Based on the title story in Dahl’s 1977 short story collection, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More, this film follows Henry Sugar (Benedict Cumberbatch). He is a wealthy aristocrat who likes to gamble. At a house party, he finds the handwritten account of a doctor’s encounter with a guru from India who trained himself to see without his eyes. Henry is fascinated by this as a way to win at gambling. He decides to follow the guru’s methods and amass even more wealth. The process does not have the outcome Henry expects. Which is, of course, what readers expect from Dahl. His novels aren’t classics of children’s literature because they’re superficial, after all.
Though The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar may be a short film, it is big on aesthetic appeal and story impact. It is economical in its use of cast and production values but generous in heart.
“I think we just witnessed a miracle.”
The combination of Anderson with Dahl is a meshing of similar points of view, and this short highlights that. Just like Anderson’s film from earlier this year, Asteroid City, the narrative is layered. Roald Dahl, played by Ralph Fiennes, shows up to narrate Sugar’s tale while the story of the Indian yogi is the tale within that tale. That multiple-framing aspect of the storytelling is definitely right in Anderson’s wheelhouse.
Fiennes has worked with Anderson before but Dev Patel, who plays the Doctor, and Ben Kingsley, who plays the yogi, are new to the director’s troupe. They settle into it very well. These three actors are joined on screen by only a few other speaking parts. Anderson has scaled down his cast in size but not in talent. These leads each play more than one role in this brief production, which contributes to the heightened, theatrical feel.
This tone is appropriate for source material that comes from Dahl. Think about the telekinetic abilities in Matilda or the witches in The Witches. Watching Kingsley’s character (who was probably played by a stunt performer during these scenes) open doors, navigate stairs, and even ride a bike while his eyes are covered is a tickle to your funny bone. It is something both Dahl and Anderson could’ve come up with.
“The mind is a scattered thing.”
Something else amusing is when Henry realizes he must disguise himself so he can keep winning at casinos and we see Cumberbatch in different ones. (One has a Texas accent! One is a woman!) But this subtle humor just hints at a larger theme that leads to some surprising references. For example, after his winnings begin, Henry realizes that gambling while knowing the outcome is no fun. He decides to do something constructive with his wealth and create hospitals and orphanages all over the world. His transformation reminded me of Scrooge’s in A Christmas Carol.
Oddly, this film reminded me of another Christmas story too. The characters frequently address the audience in the story, and at one point, Henry says that a “fiction” ending to this tale would show him seeing into his own body like an x-ray. He would be able to see the pulmonary embolism that would kill him. But the effects that illustrate this moment are reminiscent of that device that measures the Grinch’s heart in How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Fitting, when Henry has a change of heart as well.
My interpretation of these references may just be a byproduct of Anderson’s style and the details of the plot but they add richness to the viewing experience nonetheless. The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is another marriage of the similar sensibilities of Wes Anderson and Roald Dahl and it’s a treat to watch.
4 stars out of 5
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is streaming on Netflix.