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FEATURING: , , , , , Rupert Friend
PLOT: “Henry Sugar” describes a man who learns how to see while blindfolded, and uses that skill in blackjack; the other three short adaptations involve a boyhood kidnapping, a poisonous snake, and a rat catcher.
COMMENTS: In 2021, Netflix bought the rights to the complete works of British children’s author . The jewel of this legacy, from Netflix’s perspective, is “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” from which they have produced a very horrible indeed Willy Wonka prequel film starring a discombobulated Timothée Chalamet. The acquisition left them with a number of smaller properties to exploit, however, including dozens of short stories. Up to the plate steps Dahl stan Wes Anderson (who adapted The Fantastic Mr. Fox as a feature film in 2009) to tackle four lesser-known tales.
The longest and most important of the miniseries is the 37-minute “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” which Anderson and Netflix chose to premiere at the Venice International Film Festival. It is a relatively simple but exotic fantasy about a man who studies an ancient yogic text to learn the art of X-ray vision so that he can cheat at blackjack, but ends up bored, wondering “what’s next?”. The plot and moral are slightly flimsy, but Dahl’s craft is in the telling rather than the destination. Anderson honors the author’s talents by keeping almost all of Dahl’s prose intact, with exposition and asides related by the actors speaking directly to the camera: first Fiennes, as Dahl himself; then Cumberbatch as Henry Sugar, describing his own thought processes beside his dialogue; then Patel, narrating a flashback; then Kingsley, narrating a flashback within the flashback. Diving even further into artificiality, Anders eschews the magic afforded by film for humbler forms of stagecraft. Backdrops are hoisted into the flyspace to reveal new settings; stagehands visibly hand the actors props; makeup artists walk on set to swap wigs and glue on facial hair; a bookshelf, wall and door slide in from different directions to instantaneously create a new set. The effect might be termed “whimsically Brechtian.” There is no ironic bite to Anderson’s procedure here; in conjunction with the preservation of the original prose, which casts the actors as slavishly at the beck and call of Dahl’s written instructions, these visible dressings serve as a reminder of the function of imagination in constructing a story as it’s related. It’s as if we’re watching from the perspective of Wes Anderson’s mind’s eye as he listens to the stories. With their emphasis on baroquely detailed settings and de-emphasis on emoting, Anderson’s works often feel narrated anyway, rather than enacted—like pop-up picture books read by a parent to a child at bedtime. This series follows up on Asteroid City‘s cognizance of the process of its own creation, likely taking the theme as far as it can formally go.
If you hunger for more after “Sugar”—and chances are you will, for these bon-bons are simple to digest and have a wide-ranging appeal—three shorter (a uniform 17 minutes each) stories follow, each in the same style, each with a few new surprises to offer. “The Swan” is a surprisingly gruesome tale of childhood bullying; “Poison” tells of a man lying deathly still in bed, afraid to move because of a deadly snake napping on his abdomen; and “The Rat Catcher” affords a nice grimy role for Fiennes and a chance for Anderson to indulge in a few seconds of stop-motion animation. The six featured actors appear throughout the four films in various combinations, often in multiple roles within the same short. All are charming, recommended, and delivered with perfect efficiently.
If you add the runtimes of the four shorts together, you get 100 minutes of celluloid, which is essentially a second 2023 feature for Anderson. It’s turned out to be a zenith year for the auteur (who also endured a series of viral memes early in the season). Having, I presumed, here reached the limits of what he can do with self-aware theatricality, it will be fascinating to see what challenge Anderson takes on next.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Neither twee nor saccharine, Anderson’s aesthetic tends to mirror the auras and oddball personalities of his films. In a work suffused with stupefying mysteries, the strange visions Henry Sugar teems with echo its drifters’ wide-eyed wonder as well as their creator’s. It’s an infectious feeling.”–Leonardo Goi, The Film Stage (festival screening)