In Wes Anderson’s first of four adaptations of Roald Dahl’s short stories for Netflix, The Wonderful Life of Henry Sugar, the director applies his aesthetic of symmetry and visual extravagance to match the author’s fantastical story world. The result is a delightful 40-minute short film that gently illuminates the mind. 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”)
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The wonder here lies in the choices made by the director to adapt the 1977 tale in all its decade-spanning magic. It begins with a sly tip of the hat to the author, where Ralph Fiennes plays a version of Dahl. Sitting in a recreation of what the author’s writing table looked like, he gently walks us through the process that led to the story’s birth. This directness works and immediately establishes the undercurrent that Anderson is responsible for how the story will unfold – in all his symmetrical compositions and minimalist theatricality. Here, the actors play more than one role and speak directly to the screen. Landscapes transform into pastel illustrations in the background when necessary. It’s less a film than a dreamscape of othering artifice. Like a picture book, where ideas, not action, count.
From there, we meet the titular Henry Sugar (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), who is a millionaire looking to increase his fortune. One day, when he chanced upon the text “A Report on Imdad Kahn: The Man Who Sees Without Using His Eyes” in the library, his life took an inevitable turn. This man in question is played by Ben Kingsley. While Dev Patel and Richard Ayoade are the doctors who confirm its power. But this special power to see without his eyes is the key to Henry Sugar increasing his wealth. Our man is a player, but not a very skilled one, and he will train tirelessly for the next few years to master this art. The mission? To cheat at the local casino and win the most money in a short time.
A superb adaptation
Working with longtime collaborators, cinematographer Robert Yeoman, and editors Barney Pilling and Andrew Weisblum, The Wonderful Life of Henry Sugar is a triumph in all the wonderful ways in which Anderson has mastered his art of singular storytelling and eccentric with a lucid understanding of an emotional core. Here the epiphany arrives in a silent scene when Henry Sugar stands on his balcony and throws £20 notes into the street below. It’s an ideal marriage of style and source material, with Anderson’s signature direction deftly paired with the dry wit of Dahl’s words. Anderson doesn’t even try to change it; most of it is taken as is, running at a fast pace. The effect lies in the way the director condenses visual markers in the frame into backgrounds, shifting timelines, switching actors in place of characters in brilliant structural integrity.
The Wonderful Life of Henry Sugar is a rich and delightful adaptation, witty and aware of its place in the world. This suggests that behind all the decoration and uncanny resemblances lies an undeniable human need to create and nurture. There is no shortcut to this special feeling of satisfaction. Chase him.