The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar review: Wes Anderson at his delightful best

Oct 01, 2023 06:15 AM IST

Wes Anderson's The Wonderful Life of Henry Sugar sees Ralph Fiennes, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dev Patel, Ben Kingsley and Richard Ayoade in more than one role.

In the first of Wes Anderson's four adaptations of Roald Dahl short stories for Netflix, The Wonderful Life of Henry Sugar, the director applies his trademark aesthetic of symmetry and visual extravaganza to match the fantastical narrative world of the author. The result is a delightful 40-minute short that gently illuminates the spirit. The other three adaptations, The Swan, The Rat Catcher, and Poison, are all set to premiere throughout this week. (Also read: Daniel Radcliffe remembers Harry Potter co-star Michael Gambon aka Dumbledore: ‘He was silly, irreverent and hilarious’)

Dev Patel, Ben Kingsley, and Richard Aoyade in a still from The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar.
Dev Patel, Ben Kingsley, and Richard Aoyade in a still from The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar.

Trademark Wes Anderson aesthetics

The wonder here lies in the choices the director makes to adapt the 1977 tale in all its decade-spanning wizardry. It begins with a sly hat-tip to the author, where Ralph Fiennes plays a version of Dahl. Seated in a recreation of what the author's writing table looks like, he gently introduces us to the process of how the story came to be. This directness works, and at once establishes the undercurrent of Anderson being at the charge of how the story will proceed- in all his trademark symmetrical compositions and minimalist theatricality. Here, the actors appear in more than one role and address the screen directly. Landscapes shift in pastel illustrations in the background when needed. It is less a movie, more a dreamscape of altering artifice. Like a picture book, where the ideas, not the action, matter.

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The premise

From here on, we are introduced to the titular Henry Sugar (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), who is a millionaire looking to expand his fortune. One day, when he stumbles upon the text, 'A Report on Imdad Kahn: The Man Who Sees Without Using His Eyes' in the library, his life takes an inevitable turn. This man in question is played by Ben Kingsley. While Dev Patel and Richard Ayoade are the doctors who confirm his power. But this special power to see without his eyes, is the key for Henry Sugar to expand his wealth. Our man is a gambler, but not a very skilled one, and he will train himself tirelessly for the next couple of years to master this art. The mission? To cheat at the local casino and earn most money in a small time.

A wonderful adaptation

Working with long time collaborators, DOP Robert Yeoman, and editors Barney Pilling and Andrew Weisblum, The Wonderful Life of Henry Sugar is a triumph in all the wonderful ways Anderson has mastered his art of singular, eccentric storytelling with a clear-eyed grasp of an emotional core. Here, the epiphany arrives in a wordless scene when Henry Sugar stands on his balcony and tosses £20 notes on the street below. This is an ideal marriage of style and source material- with Anderson's trademark mise en scène sitting adroitly with the dry wit of Dahl's words. Anderson does not even try to change it; most of it is taken as it is, running in a fast pace. The effect lies in how the director condenses the visual markers into the frame in the form of backgrounds, shifting timelines, switching actors in place of characters into a brilliant structural integrity.

The Wonderful Life of Henry Sugar is a rich and delicious adaptation, brimming with wit and keen awareness of its place in the world. It suggests, that behind all the decoration and uncanny resemblances, lies an undeniable human urge to create and nourish. There is no shortcut to that particular feeling of satisfaction. Chase it.

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