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“Well, here we are now, in the hut where I write,” begins the narration of Roald Dahl (Ralph Fiennes) in Wes Anderson’s Netflix exclusive, “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar.” The scene is emblematic of Anderson’s style: The old man is shot head-on in a symmetrically-framed writing room lit by his signature pale orange and teal hues. Anderson co-produced and directed the 39-minute exclusive based on a Roald Dahl short story of the same name. Its Sept. 27 release was followed by three more Anderson shorts of Roald Dahl stories. This first film follows Henry Sugar (Benedict Cumberbatch), a rich and unmarried 41-year-old man. After reading about a doctor’s encounter with a man named Imdad Khan (Ben Kingsley) – who can see without his eyes — Henry sets out to learn the same skill in order to cheat at cards and win more money.
Anderson’s style and the actors’ performances masterfully develop the heartwarming story that ensues as Henry Sugar and Imdad Khan truly appear to see without their eyes. While sometimes stilted by extensive monologues, the film's narrative style and unique sets succeed in bringing the director’s intricate work to a mainstream streaming platform while maintaining his characteristic charm.
Dahl’s endearing yet absurd tale lends itself to Anderson’s quirky style, as it did before in “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” In the adaptation, the dialogue is almost exactly accurate to the original story. Characters talk directly to the audience, often muttering “I said” or “he said” in an aside. The faithfulness to the source material sometimes makes the dialogue feel rushed or tedious because each character has to get through all of the intermediary narration that explains what’s happening visually, but it contributes to the storybook style. The breaking of hte fourth wall allows the viewer to feel a deeper connection to the characters, as each unique personality shares their experience. The plot is a story-within-a-story-within-a-story-within-a-story; Although this spiral is confusing at first, the interactions between storylines allow each character to narrate their own parts in order to illustrate their obsession with Khan’s ability to see without his eyes and show their emotional growth.
The cast is definitely a highlight of the short, with their expressive styles skillfully executing the narration-heavy lines. Cumberbatch’s exaggerated facial expressions playfully highlight Sugar’s personal journey of growth as he grapples with his desire for wealth. Ralph Fiennes plays Roald Dahl, and his expositional narration bookends the tale masterfully, making it sound like it is actually Roald Dahl narrating his own story. All actors appear within other layers of the story as if in a theater troupe, prompting reflection on the thematic links between the moments.
Sometimes, however, the plot feels too rapid — and at other times it falls stagnant. When Imdad Khan is learning to see without his eyes, for example, it seems to take forever in the context of the scene, but when Henry Sugar learns, it feels as if he finishes almost instantaneously. Although Sugar learns in less years than Khan, Sugar’s learning experience feels far more sped up. While this choice intentionally reflects Sugar’s nearly manic desire to be able to see through cards, it can feel dissatisfying and uncomfortable compared to Khan’s drawn-out journey.
Anderson’s filming style and sets make the nearly word-for-word adaptation unique. As the story switches narrators, transitions are often shown with the camera visibly moving between sets, and costume elements and props are brought out by a “stage crew.” This theatrical approach creates an intimate atmosphere. As the plot gets deeper into each layer of stories, it becomes even more theater-like rather than realistic: like the journey Imdad Khan takes through the rainforest featuring painted background layers that resemble a storybook. The viewer can visually dive into the world of magical realism with the progression of set changes like these.
This is Anderson’s first project for streaming instead of the big screen, with films such as summer 2023’s “Asteroid City” having large in-theater opening weekends. However, this short film premiered at the Venice Film Festival on Sept. 1, before it came out on Netflix on Sept. 27. Being meant for smaller screens, one might think that Anderson would have to simplify his intentionally built sets. However, this isn’t the case, as the intricately colored and patterned backgrounds still successfully amplify the facial expressions and body language of the characters despite the change.
Ultimately, the skillfully crafted storytelling in “The Wonderful Life of Henry Sugar” makes it a must-watch. The heartwarming piece bodes well for the other adaptations of Dahl’s stories coming out now on Netflix.
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