WHAT WE’RE WATCHING
‘The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar’ lives up to its titular sweetness
What director could bottle Roald Dahl’s silly genius better than Wes Anderson. His new short film on Netflix is quirky, formulaic and charming as ever.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays the titular role of Henry Sugar – a rich, shallow man who discovers a doctor’s journal recounting meetings with a conjurer who’d learnt from a guru to see without using his eyes. Realising that such an ability would enable him to make enormous amounts of money cheating at gambling, Henry becomes single-mindedly determined to develop the skill himself.
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More is a collection of short stories by Roald Dahl published in 1977. The seven tales are more complex than many of Dahl’s children’s novels, but being that they’re still his, they have a certain fanciful whimsy that makes them attractive to children nevertheless with his use of repetitive elements and cheeky, charmingly straightforward sentences. If only there was a popular director known for the same quirks who could pay proper tribute to Dahl’s eccentric genius…
At just 37 minutes, it may be shorter than an episode of your favourite series, but still spans years and years, travels all over the world, and whisks the viewer into stories within stories. With Anderson’s intricate, seamless sets and theatrical pantomime, there’s scarcely another director in the world who could so perfectly match the child-like wonder of Dahl’s writing.
What’s the vibe?
Even though The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is not overtly aimed at children, its humour is actually less sardonic than most of his kids’ books. Any child who can understand the slightly pompous vernacular (and probably even one who can’t) will enjoy Anderson’s adaptation, typical of both its waggish creators.
A closer look
Many directors battle the necessary brevity of a film by culling details. Their finished products might be methodically cut so that every line and shot helps guide the viewer through the narrative. On the other side of the directorial spectrum are those who seek most of all to evoke a feeling rather than tell a story.
Possibly what delights people about Anderson’s films is that he does both as rapidly as possible. He uses narration because it can convey information extremely quickly and clearly – story-telling is prominent in his films. His actors speak directly to you, rapidly, with a robotic bluntness.
But the playful nostalgia of his films is equally important, and he fosters it in a matter of seconds with the affected neurodivergence of his actors’ delivery and the specificity of what his characters choose to include in their stories (which are so at odds with what we expect from film that it becomes humorous).
Anderson begins The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, as he often does, with fabricated nostalgia. Immediately the audience gets hints of a dozen noticeable details they’ll never be privy to, and minds fill in the blanks, creating the fond impression of a real past one never witnessed.
The bulk of lines in the film are lifted directly from the book, which suits Anderson’s already narration-heavy style. Having Henry Sugar narrate his own story seems typical of an Anderson film, and simultaneously makes the viewer feel like they’re being read a bedtime story. Actors pass the limelight to one another constantly, oscillating with such frequency between playing their character, narrating in first-person and narrating in third-person, that the fourth wall is never yet rebuilt before it’s broken again in ever more creative ways.
One of these illusion-shattering techniques is Anderson’s rebellion against CGI. Animators can now create just about anything with computer-generated effects, and consequently, audiences expect a very high standard and simultaneously are difficult to impress. So Anderson goes the other way.
He finds simple theatrical ways to create his “special effects”, and although they’re not literally convincing, their transparent falsity is amusing and their creativity more engaging than the real thing. The transforming sets, intentional zooms and curated colour palettes can satiate the most attention-deficient of audiences.
Anderson has also made several shorter adaptions of slightly darker stories by Dahl, now available on Netflix, including The Swan, Poison, and a lesser-known one called The Ratcatcher. They have all the same tricks, trappings and familiar faces, they’re just as formulaic and just as enchanting. DM
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is available on Netflix
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