For the past decade, we’ve slowly watched every rising and established artist take up streaming on their offer of crazy money to make whatever they want before realizing that an algorithmically driven platform doesn’t care for their hard work and unique style. Netflix won’t curate or even functionally promote its own content if the powers that be aren’t sure it’ll be a megahit, leading to a lot of skepticism from filmmakers of merit when the big streamer services come knocking looking for prestigious, eye-catching content. And now they got our dear Wes.
In a sense, the king of quirk and saviour of symmetry, director Wes Anderson has gotten the best possible deal out of his Netflix collab; for their trouble, he’s given them something that’s difficult to either milk or bury, a short of about 39 minutes that’s nothing more than a slice of delightful fluff. That’s not to say audiences should dismiss it; The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar feels like we’re being invited into a very personal Wes Anderson space, where he makes a deep-cut his own while still venerating an author he clearly loves.
Henry Sugar is the title story in a collection that author Roald Dahl intended for a slightly older audience than his timeless children’s tales. It’s not as deliciously macabre or unnerving as some of his horror shorts, such as can be found in Skin, but as we can tell from the narration that carries straight into Anderson’s short, Dahl has heightened that “talking to kids as if they’re serious grown-ups” tone a couple degrees more. The joy of Dahl’s stories was that they felt like they respected their reader, no matter their age and no matter how childish and fantastical their contents.
Dahl is technically in Henry Sugar; Anderson has faithfully recreated the author’s writing set-up in the quaint, yellow-painted backyard shed he used as a writing den and planted Ralph Fiennes (No Time To Die) inside in the role of the iconic author. Dahl is one of Henry Sugar’s four narrators – there are five speaking characters in the film – kicking off a nested narrative of a wealthy, insensitive man who learns of a circus performer who attracted the attention of doctors in Calcutta for being able to see perfectly without using his eyes.
This man, Henry Sugar (Benedict Cumberbatch), becomes fixated on replicating the trick so that he can become even more rich, with little thought on the social and psychological consequences of such a con. If you smell a moral tale on the horizon, you’d do well to remember that both Dahl and Anderson are far too arch and clever to ever plainly and unironically lecture their audience.
The narrators themselves, all of whom speak and react directly to the camera, feel suited to this particular style of performing – it feels like a natural evolution of the fixed, taxidermied expressions of the stop-motion critters in Fantastic Mr. Fox. The small cast’s uniform strength is noteworthy, as all of them, bar Fiennes, have never acted for Wes before. Cumberbatch reminds us how funny he can be when he's not doing the sarcastic, Americanized Doctor Strange schtick – like in Sherlock, here he plays a posh, vaguely sociopathic Englishman with unnerving ease.
Dev Patel (The Green Knight), playing the doctor who first reports on the circus performer's uncanny gift, proves once again the best Wes Anderson newcomers are those who feel like they've been part of his casts for years – his furrowed brows and articulative grace add a self-serious urgency that you crave more of once his storyline is over. He's complimented by Ben Kingsley (The Tale of Sweeney Todd) as Imdad Khan, the gifted circus act, and Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd), who impresses more as a doctor of few words than a mystical, reclusive yogi master – it turns out questionable and antiquated colonialist characterizations are also part of Anderson and Dahl's common language.
Henry Sugar isn't just a tasty treat from a filmmaker who this year has also gifted us his greatest feature film since The Grand Budapest Hotel, it's an aperitif – three more Wes x Dahl tales are coming this month to Netflix. They'll be shorter than Henry Sugar but hopefully equally delightful, and together should expand the possibilities for how the beloved author looks and feels on screen.
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar premieres in U.S. theaters on Wednesday, September 20, and will stream on Netflix worldwide starting one week later on Wednesday, September 27, 2023.