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November 5, 2023

Poison, one of four short stories by Roald Dahl adapted for Netflix by Wes Anderson is as charming as it is quirky.

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Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Dev Patel, Ben Kingsley and Ralph Fiennes

Adaption and direction: Wes Anderson


irector Wes Anderson is most certainly mocked on social media platforms for his quirky style of direction. From art and production design, striking composition of each frame, the unique aesthetic he brings to each film, and his characters’ proclivity to break the fourth wall, have all but made him one of the most influential directors of the decade.

With the hallmarks of any Anderson film, his adaptation of children’s author Roald Dahl’s variety of stories in four short films serves us a masterpiece in each film.

Available on Netflix as a collection of short films released in 2023 including The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, Poison, The Rat Catcher and The Swan with an A-list and art-house cast require you to take out time to view and revel in each of them.

Poison, the second short in the series, which features the same cast as The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, may sound a bit sketchy because of its description: “A man discovers a poisonous snake asleep in his bed.”

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However, in Dahl’s world and Anderson’s film universe, the snake is a parable and nothing like Harry Potter’s sinister snake, Nagini (owned by the villain Lord Voldermort).

So, you might be wondering what is it all about?

In 17 minutes, Anderson tells the tale of a snake, India and an Englishman, as we get past our fear of the snake.

Poison opens in the same manner as The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. The character of Supervisor Woods (Dev Patel) does look at the camera like he is talking to a person and isn’t in a film at all. It is midnight, and he shuts off the lights of his jeep so they don’t wake Harry Pope (Benedict Cumberbatch). But he also notes he didn’t need to since a light is already on, as he speaks at the speed of light. The house in the background shows us a window where a light is switched on. He counts every step, and goes straight into Harry’s room who is lying still in a bed and though awake, he makes no movement at all. Harry asks for “help” and Supervisor Woods asks him twice to repeat himself because the sound is almost inaudible. Harry asks him to take off his shoes. He doesn’t understand the purpose but he does so anyway. Harry asks him to not touch him and Patel is suddenly wondering what he is talking about.

Every minute, the quotient of mystery rises.

Harry says the snake hasn’t bitten him. It is asleep on his stomach. Supervisor jumps backwards, almost by instinct. Who wouldn’t?

In whispering tones, Harry tells the story about how he saw from the corner of his eye, the small ‘Krait’ that has been lying there for hours. But he needs to cough and cannot maintain this posture for long.

The camera cuts back to the storyteller - Ralph Fiennes - in the same setting we first witnessed in The Wonderful World of Henry Sugar. He explains how it was not an uncommon thing to do for a ‘Krait’ who lingers in people’s homes looking for warm places. But the storyteller is confused by how Harry hasn’t been bitten. A bite, he says, that is as deadly as it is ferocious. As the camera goes back to Harry and Supervisor Woods, he asks Harry not to move and goes looking for a knife, ready to battle the venomous snake. His idea will kill Harry as well as the snake and the idea is dismissed by Harry at once. Upon his request, Woods must fetch the doctor. It’s an intriguing exercise in acting. Patel speaks many, many words per minute while Harry, lying still and staring at the ceiling, speaks as little as possible in hushed tones. It is a contrasting conversation. And so, Patel goes to call Dr. Ganderbai (Ben Kingsley). We see both of them but now it is the doctor who is talking to the audience when asked to bring a serum. “Who’s been bitten?” he asks.

All of them describe what they are doing and what they’re thinking immediately.

Dr. Ganderbai arrives and goes straight into action, explaining to Harry that he is giving him a serum and he should stay as still as possible.

As is often Wes Anderson’s technique, now the frame is halved. Half is the exact babbling of Supervisor Woods about what is being done by the doctor and the other half shows Harry and Dr. Ganderbai preparing Harry for a serum injection. Will he save Harry or die trying or will both of them survive?

This is where the short film, almost at 8 minutes, becomes even more arresting. There is also something very funny about how each scene is presented with Supervisor Woods making it less eerie and like an action film where the climax is about to take place. But there are no flying cars or jumping off planes, just a lot of clever storytelling.

The costumes are true to each character, the production design and Anderson’s aesthetics appear depending on who is talking to us. Is this a universal story about life versus death? Perhaps. But the treatment of each shot and each character is such that it is hard to not follow through the film or recognize from the beginning that this could very well be a Wes Anderson film without knowing any of the credits. Props must go to Roald Dahl as well because the short story is not scary; it makes you laugh and comes off as a mystery but one that an adult or a child could watch without running for the hills or the bathroom.

In the end, it is a terrific show of acting, writing and direction. You cannot decide who has mastered the art of acting in this one because all actors fit their characters like a glove.

Our advice is to watch the first film, The Wonderful World of Henry Sugar and follow the second story, which is called Poison. Highly recommended!

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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