The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar: A rich man learns about a guru who can see without using his eyes. He sets out to master the skill in order to cheat at gambling. Extremely faithfully adapted from Roald Dahl’s long short story.
Asteroid City was what happens when Wes Anderson emphasizes style over substance. A pretty little turd was what I called it in my review of the film. Style not yoked to function/meaning equals nothing. Asteroid City was charming to look at but utterly disposable and since it had no substance beyond its own meta existence a pretty dull exercise in pomp with no circumstance.
Roald Dahl’s stories and novels seem to be the burden that Anderson’s style needs to bring out substance. Fantastic Mr. Fox is Anderson‘s animated mind at its best. It needs to be the woodcut for the literal lines. Fox’s stop motion was sly and witty, a perfect mixture of Anderson and Dahl, complete drollery.
At 37 minutes, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, the first of four Netflix shorts the filmmaker has made from Dahl’s anthology book of the same name, is both brief and literal- and paradoxically freeing. It’s not old Anderson but a revitalized Anderson and thus seems fresh.
Dahl’s Chinese box attitude towards plot construction fits nicely within Anderson’s meta sensibility. The shorter length and the madcap narration keeps Anderson focused on the essential rifts. There are just two layers running simultaneously- the Roald Dahl meta character (Ralph Fiennes) in his writing space who introduces the story’s I narrator (Benedict Cumberbatch). The subplot within many subplots involves a sighted old man (Ben Kingsley) who claims and proves he can see and navigate the world better totally blind- which jumps off to the Henry Sugar (Cumberbatch) main plot that uses that knowledge to defraud casinos and make himself rich.
Anderson keeps up with Dahl’s breathless narration by using deadpan speed lines done with screwball delivery; dioramas that dally in and out, up and down, even levitate for deca-seconds; and movable backdrops and modular props that are wheeled on and off as needed. The brilliant production design, created by Adam Stockhsusen, emphasizes theatricality, the shine under the other shine. It allows Anderson to be his visually inventive best. For here, at least, the Anderson style is bricolage, and not meta.
Anderson has something to pin his dual obsessive themes to- self-understanding in a senseless world and how narrative can lead to understanding life’s truths. Sugar emphasizes the universal under the nonsense. And with that, Anderson now has something that made his younger work so vital- art yoked to style. It’s a big middle finger to the critics (myself included) who see his latest movies as all style with no substance. His brain, after a multi-film vacation, has come back refreshed, ready to do good happy work.
Dahl and Anderson share the same outrageous vision. There stories are often rooted to narrative with no obeisance to reality. There is no now in Sugar, nothing that exists outside of its fantastical storytelling. Actors play multiple roles. Identity is fluid. The camera moves to the character rather than characters to the camera. It’s all one seemingly seamless long take and cut, at least in the narrative brain. If life is a cruel joke delivered over and over again, then deadpan is the best delivery method. The audience can wink at them, even the director, but never can they knowingly wink back. The fakery exposes the level of lies so the audience knows where the truth is.
Dahl wrote that defining sensibility into the last paragraphs of Sugar: “The audience loves it. They applaud long and loud. But not one single person believes it to be genuine. Everyone thinks it is just another clever trick. And the fact that I am a conjurer makes them think more than ever that I am faking. Conjurers are men who trick you. They trick you with cleverness. And so no one believes me. Even the doctors who blindfold me in the most expert way refuse to believe that anyone can see with out his eyes. They forget there may be other ways of sending the image to the brain.”
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar gets a semi-wonderful 4 out of 5 or an A-.
by Roald Dahl
- September 1, 2023(Venice)
- September 20, 2023(United States)
- September 27, 2023(Netflix)