The first of four Roald Dahl short stories adapted by Wes Anderson as part of Netflix’s reported half-a-billion-dollar deal with the Dahl Estate, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is mostly a moderation of Anderson’s trademark – and increasingly wacky – style. At 37 minutes in length, it’s an easy-to-watch nugget of wit and wisdom but likely won’t have you thinking about it days (or maybe even hours) later.
Benedict Cumberbatch is Henry Sugar, a bored English aristocrat who happens upon a doctor’s diary from mid-1930s India, and changes his ways. Ben Kingsley is Imdad Khan, the subject of that diary and The Man Who Could See Without His Eyes. He sells his incredible skill at theaters throughout India, and attends a hospital where the diary’s author Dr. Chaterjee (Dev Patel) and his colleague Dr Marshall (Richard Ayoade) work. This is to have his talent medically endorsed — and an elaborate mask glued on.
Patel’s narration direct to the camera is how we have scenes described, a classic Anderson quirk that lines up to Dahl’s own style. Patel and Ayoade thrive as the amazed medics rushing around to prove (or disprove) Khan’s condition, while Kingsley adds a dramatic heft missing from much of Anderson’s recent work. The root of his ability is genuinely moving, while Anderson injects humor with stagey props and some nifty editing. Ayoade is probably the strongest of the new entrants to Anderson’s ensemble, hiding seamlessly behind disguises in multiple roles and grasping the silent-era style of Anderson’s favored physical comedy.
Cumberbatch is less memorable, perhaps because Sugar has very little to do. Ralph Fiennes also returns to the Anderson fold as Roald Dahl and a policeman who arrives later in the story-within-a-story. Having put in one of Anderson’s best ever performances in The Grand Budapest Hotel, it’s good to see him back. His Dahl is like an aged Willy Wonka: grumpy, particular, and well aware of his talents.
Henry Sugar lacks the visual ingenuity of Anderson’s previous Dahl adaptation, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and in most parts tones down the visual symmetry and quickness that has come to define the director’s recent work. The three other Dahl short stories we’re set to get from Anderson could benefit from a little more invention. But this is a welcome return to a story with a little more substance and a simple moral message.
This review is from the 2023 Venice Film Festival. Netflix will release the film on September 27.