The Wonderful World of Henry Sugar review: Wes Anderson’s Netflix debut is pure loveliness

The Oscar-winner has teamed with Netflix in a marriage of convenience to adapt four Roald Dahl stories debuting over four days this week – and the first is an ideal companion to his recent feature films

Clarisse Loughrey
Thursday 28 September 2023 13:53 BST
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar trailer

This week, Wes Anderson will debut four new short films over four days, each adapted from lesser-known stories by Roald Dahl, whose work he has previously tackled in 2009’s Fantastic Mr Fox. Since Netflix acquired the Roald Dahl Story Company in 2021, for the princely sum of $686m (£564m), the shorts will debut directly on the streaming service – The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar first, followed by The Swan, The Ratcatcher, and then Poison. Anderson has described the deal as more of a marriage of convenience than anything else.

At 39 minutes, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is the longest of the quartet. And it makes for an ideal companion to the director’s previous two films, Asteroid City and The French Dispatch. Written by Dahl in 1977, it concerns a wealthy, ineffectual man by the name of Henry (Benedict Cumberbatch). He discovers a notebook, written by a Dr Chatterjee (Dev Patel), that details his encounter with Imdad Khan (Ben Kingsley), otherwise known as “The Man Who Could See Without Using His Eyes”. Many believe that Dahl wrote the story as a gentle rebuke to the critics who would chastise his macabre and cynical inclinations – Henry, at first, covets Khan’s powers in order to improve his hand at cards. Yet, his greed isn’t punished but absolved by a greater purpose.

Anderson’s adaptation seems to conceal its own (conscious or subconscious) rebuke. For every sincere admirer of his work, now there is an Instagram filter or viral AI prompt ready to denigrate his craft. So perhaps it’s no coincidence that the director has found himself increasingly drawn to material that celebrates the labour behind storytelling: the journalists who narrate their pieces to the audience in The French Dispatch, or the actors and writers behind the play-inside-a-television-show that constitutes Asteroid City.

Here, in the lovely, immaculate, and extremely faithful The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, we’re first introduced to Dahl himself. He’s played by Ralph Fiennes, slightly slumped in his posture, but rigorous in his routine – a natural ancestor of Anderson’s. He sets out his writing board, paper, and pencil. He makes a few swift edits. Then, he introduces us to Henry, who introduces us to Dr Chatterjee, who, in turn, introduces us to Imdad.

Each of them tells their story, in the galloping clip of an explorer presenting their discovery. They deliver Dahl’s prose almost entirely untouched, with all the “I said”s and passages of descriptive language intact. At one point, Dr Chatterjee tells us that “two minutes pass”. He takes a short breath, and immediately continues on.

There’s no illusion of reality here, no detachment from the storyteller and the story. In every single moment of The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, we are reminded that this is a product of human imagination, brought into being by human hands. Anderson makes use of animation, claymation, miniatures, painted backgrounds, and back-projection. His actors (the short also features Richard Ayoade, as Dr Chatterjee’s assistant) play multiple roles, working like a theatre troupe.

When Imdad’s eyes are covered up in order to test his powers of sight, the bandage arrives pre-wrapped, popped on like a helmet. When he levitates, he simply rotates a small box, painted to blend into the scene’s jungle backdrop, and sits on it. At other times, well-dressed stagehands silently emerge from the wings, as they rearrange props, pop open windows, and drag actors across the stage. Anderson even allows his shots to occasionally extend beyond the edges of his backdrops, so that his frames become littered with stage lights and wires. He wants us to see the artifice, so that when Dahl’s simple but effective tale of seeing the world in unexpected ways concludes, we’re reminded that fiction can often feel more true to us than life.

Dir: Wes Anderson. Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Ralph Fiennes, Dev Patel, Ben Kingsley, Rupert Friend, Richard Ayoade. PG, 39 minutes.

‘The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar’ streams on Netflix from Wednesday 27 September, followed in successive days by ‘The Swan’, ‘The Ratcatcher’ and ‘Poison’

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