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October 8, 2023

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, based on a story by Roald Dahl, adapted for screen and directed by Wes Anderson, is witty, imaginative, inspirational and shows just how masterful a director can be.

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The Wonderful Story of 

Henry Sugar ☆☆☆☆☆ 

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Ralph Fiennes, Dev Patel, Ben Kingsley, Richard Ayoade
*Directed by Wes Anderson


confess that Roald Dahl, British author and poet, often described as, “one of the greatest storytellers for children of the 20th century,” has been a mystery to me, simply because I haven’t read his books. This does allow me to see the adapted screenplay as an original one, though.

Adapted into a screenplay as well as directed by one of the most colorful directors of present times, Wes Anderson, at first just piqued curiosity.

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When Anderson employs a list of brilliant actors such as Benedict Cumberbatch, Ralph Fiennes, Dev Patel, Ben Kingsley, Richard Ayoade, with a short film that has a duration of 39 minutes, it does feel compelling, exciting and easy to watch.

Released recently on Netflix, there are a bundle of Roald Dahl films within the collection, but The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is the first short from where the collection begins and after viewing it, you will realize it is an effective and appealing starting point.

Opening with a narration voiced by Ralph Fiennes as Roald Dahl, it is like accessing your inner child that has lost itself due to the gloom and doom of daily life and age. But if there is a film that will make adults and children look for Roald Dahl books, this is it.

Dahl is essayed by Ralph Fiennes, who also essays a character called ‘Policeman’ as well. As Fiennes becomes Dahl first, he opens the film with a monologue, sitting on a couch, making sure he has all that he needs before beginning. The hut where he does his writing is a place where he has spent 30 years.

Cigarettes, coffee and chocolates are a must, as is a sharp pencil. He uses six pencils and a writing board.

But this is why the film has that quintessential Wes Anderson mark. Dahl is not sitting before a dark table and a chair. The walls are orange, and the art direction is strong, paying attention to everything from a lamp to the couch and pictures/sketches across various walls. Little details become clearer as you watch each frame – on repeat.

Fiennes, a longtime collaborator of Wes Anderson’s, brings such beautiful, clean cadence to his voice and imagery as Dahl that you feel like you are listening to a storyteller except he is telling you the story in a visual format instead of a book or a podcast or a radio series.

Dahl begins with a story of a character called Henry Sugar. Looking straight into the camera, he describes who Henry Sugar is before introducing us to him as a person.

Dahl tells us that Henry Sugar, 41, was rich because his father had died and he never married, “because he was too selfish to share any of his money with a wife.” He wore sharp suits, drove a Ferrari, and had his shirts, suits and shoes made by expensive experts. He had a manicure on the same day.

“Men like Henry Sugar can be found drifting like seaweed all over the world. They’re not particularly bad men, but they’re not good men either,” says Dahl.

After an introduction to Sugar, Dahl continues to narrate as we meet Henry Sugar (Benedict Cumberbatch) sitting in a waiting space, somewhere.

Like many Wes Anderson movies, the narration is not presented by one person, it is also given by the character that Dahl is describing. Peeking inside a window where Sugar is sitting, Dahl continues his narration.

Suddenly, it is Sugar, who is carrying on the narration as he too, looks at the camera. As Henry Sugar enters the frame, you realize his description by Dahl is right on the money. And Cumberbatch, too, carries himself much like Dahl’s description.

Standing in a library, no title appeals to him except a thin children’s exercise book. It catches his eye, and as he opens the slim book, it reads: A Report on Imdad Khan – The Man Who Sees Without His Eyes by Dr. Z.Z Chatterjee, December 1935, Calcutta.

Sugar is intrigued and begins reading from the book.

Now the narration shifts again, as Dev Patel (Dr. Chatterjee / John Winston) is seen sitting in what looks like a clinic as Dr. Chatterjee. The doctor describes the morning of December 2, 1935 and he is talking to the viewer as the door opens and Ben Kingsley (Imdad Khan / Croupier) enters as Imdad Khan, who can see without his eyes and is an elderly gentleman. The narration jumps back and forth between Dr. Chatterjee and Khan.

Out of curiosity, Dr. Chatterjee asks Khan to come inside. And so goes the short film. But this is no ordinary film. Apart from the narrations, every major character breaks the famous fourth wall. It is a method of storytelling that Anderson has employed in the past before and seems to have mastered with this film.

Too many narrations made The Grand Budapest Hotel a mess. But that trick works like magic in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar.

Apart from the colorful acting, the way locations are turned and each of the frames are literally moved, as well as the diction of each actor, you can’t help but applaud Anderson for his adaptation of the original story as well as working with an eclectic cast and getting their voices as well as attitude and costumes just right.

Wes Anderson’s carefully calibrated pace also makes this one of his stand-out films and a great ode to the children’s storyteller. After watching this film, you will want to watch the rest of the short films in the collection, find books by Roald Dahl, as well as past works by Wes Anderson. That is the power of literature and cinema, and when you do get it exactly right, the result can be magical. This is one of those films. Highly recommended!

And Netflix, if you’re listening, start investing in such projects instead of the many, many true crime stories you produce. There is, after all, such a thing as too much.

Rating system: *Not on your life * ½ If you really must waste your time ** Hardly worth the bother ** ½ Okay for a slow afternoon only *** Good enough for a look see *** ½ Recommended viewing **** Don’t miss it **** ½ Almost perfect ***** Perfection

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