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Nathan Weinbender reviews "The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar"

Film still of Benedict Cumberbatch as Henry Sugar in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (2023).
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, American Empirical Pictures/Indian Paintbrush/Netflix, 2023.
Film still of Benedict Cumberbatch as Henry Sugar in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (2023).


This summer, Wes Anderson released Asteroid City, a melancholic atomic age comedy about death and family and aliens that, about halfway through, cracks itself open to reveal a more complex treatise on the precarious relationship between writers and performers and the fictional worlds they create.

It’s such a deceptively slippery movie, and just as I’m beginning to feel like I’ve gotten my arms around it, Anderson comes along with a new quartet of short films inspired by the work of Roald Dahl. Although released as standalone works, the shorts are, when watched back to back, of a piece, and they again show Anderson deconstructing his own methods.

The centerpiece of the collection is The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, about an independently wealthy bore who learns of a man who, years ago, taught himself to see with his eyes covered. Henry decides he will devote years of his life to learning this same technique, take it to the casinos and acquire even more riches. But he soon discovers that cheating the system isn’t nearly as fun as he thought it’d be.

The other three tales are significantly shorter than Henry Sugar, and all involve animals. The Rat Catcher is set in a village beset by vermin, and follows a strange exterminator whose philosophy seems to be that, in order to understand a creature, you must first become it. In The Swan, one of Dahl’s most unforgiving tales about the dark side of childhood, a reign of terror by two bullies extends both to a young social outcast and to the titular bird. And Poison, previously adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, begins with a soldier immobile and desperate for help when a venomous snake slithers into his bed.

Dahl was known for his cleverness and his scabrous wit, which seem ideal for the short story format. But none of these Anderson-directed tales ends with a too-clever punchline, or having been wrapped up in a bow that pulls all the themes together. They’re strange, somber, mostly pessimistic (in that sense, perhaps, distinctly British), and they end with ellipses rather than hard stops. Each one is about seemingly miraculous or impossible events intruding upon the mundane world, before disappointment or disillusionment send them crashing down to earth—sometimes literally.

The worldview is Dahl’s, and the visual sensibility is pure Anderson. In a departure from the sprawling ensemble casts he’s known for, Anderson relies here on a small stable of actors in recurring roles—Benedict Cumberbatch, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Rupert Friend, Dev Patel and Richard Ayoade.

But the films also continue his recent fascination with the moving parts of filmmaking. They’re sparsely staged, with sets whose pieces swing on hinges and get raised by ropes. The characters narrate the stories themselves, directly to camera and at breakneck speed. Anderson is deliberately showing us the seams of his creation, to the extent that we watch as the actors are handed props and change identities and costumes before our eyes. There are moments when they resemble the productions of the Max Fischer Players in Rushmore.

These films return Anderson to the world of Dahl for the first time since his great Fantastic Mr. Fox in 2009. They’re all minor works, and they’re told in a minor key, but they represent major developments in the new and challenging ways that he's telling stories within his familiar, instantly recognizable style.

For Spokane Public Radio, I'm Nathan Weinbender.


Nathan Weinbender is a co-host of Spokane Public Radio’s Movies 101, heard Friday evenings at 6:30 PM here on KPBX.

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  • On this week’s show, Dan Webster, Nathan Weinbender, and Mary Pat Treuthart discuss two dives into imaginary worlds—one being the full-length feature “The Creator” and the other a series of short Wes Anderson films adapted from Roald Dahl short stories.