The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar – first-look review

Back in June, while promoting Asteroid City, Wes Anderson caused quite the stir when he was asked about his new Roald Dahl adaptation with Netflix. After first pointing out that Netflix was the only place he could do the film since they acquired the rights to Dahl’s back catalogue in 2021 for $370 million, he then remarked that the streaming platform was “the perfect place to do it, because it’s not really a movie”. Undoubtedly Anderson meant nothing by the comment other than he prefers his films to be watched in the cinema rather than on a laptop or phone (at least on first run) but the comment was still deeply amusing for fans.

Perhaps in response, his second Dahl adaptation – from the short The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar – will receive a limited theatrical release before it hits streaming, and played Out of Competition at the Venice Film Festival. At a dinky 37 minutes, it’s his second shortest film after Hotel Chevalier, which was shot as a companion piece to The Darjeeling Limited. It’s also utterly charming, though we’ve come to expect as much from Anderson’s meticulously constructed technicolour worlds.

Working with a clutch of Wes first-timers as well as returning muse Ralph Fiennes (who here serves as Roald Dahl, narrating the film) Anderson tells the rather succinct story of a fabulously wealthy man (Benedict Cumberbatch) who cares for little beyond the accumulation of further wealth. One evening while snooping in the library of a friend’s home he discovers a book by Dr. ZZ Chatterjee (Dev Patel) that details his encounter with one Imdad Khan (Ben Kingsley): The Man Who Could See Without Using His Eyes.

This story-within-a-story is presented like a play, with intricate backdrops that illustrate Khan’s story of training with a mysterious Yogi (Richard Ayoade, who also appears as a doctor) in the depths of the Indian jungle. In this sense, the film is reminiscent of Asteroid City, but also brings to mind the home-staged plays of Margot Tenenbaum. The splendour of the set design reflects Dahl’s extraordinary imagination, but also indicates that Anderson puts as much care and attention to detail into a short film as a long one.

It’s not a surprise that Patel, Ayoade and Kingsley fit seamlessly into an Anderson picture (perhaps they’ll return for a longer project in future) and their direct-to-audience delivery – including stage directions – injects an element of deadpan humour. Fiennes makes perhaps a too flattering Dahl, with the first scene shot as a documentary at the writer’s Gipsy Cottage as he explains his process (Anderson previously stayed at the hut when he was working on Fantastic Mr. Fox, so it’s no surprise he recreates the surroundings lovingly) before beginning to tell the story direct-to-camera. There’s even a little Jarvis Cocker cameo, which is always nice.

Some critics considered the Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar to be Dahl’s humourous attempt to hit back at his detractors, who accused him of being a mean writer. Certainly it’s a rather saccharine narrative about a man whose miserliness is forever changed by a moment of spirituality (and the enduring exoticism of India is an issue within the source material that doesn’t exactly get corrected here) and doesn’t offer the same food for thought as Anderson’s features. It might even serve as a bit of a joke about the constant accusations his filmography faces, of his films being all style over substance. But for devotees, it’s a delightful little morsel, lovingly brought to life as only Anderson knows how.

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