In his second cinematic enchantment of 2023, following the enchanting “Asteroid City,” director Wes Anderson crafts a whimsical tale with every detail meticulously in place. The inspiration for this endeavor comes from the beloved author Roald Dahl, whose earlier work, “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” marked Anderson’s inaugural venture into stop-motion animation. While “Fantastic Mr. Fox” primarily targeted a young audience, Anderson infused it with a mature subtext and a subtle, slightly sinister undercurrent beneath its sardonic humor.
This marks Anderson’s debut as a Netflix filmmaker, albeit under somewhat reluctant circumstances. He had harbored ambitions of bringing this project to life for some time, during which Dahl’s estate struck a lucrative deal with the streaming giant. Consequently, Anderson offers Netflix a precise 40-minute narrative, primarily adhering to the boxy Academy ratio, albeit with strategic moments where the frame playfully extends its boundaries.
The film isn’t animated; instead, it features live-action actors, a group well-acquainted with Anderson’s unique style. Ralph Fiennes embodies a version of Dahl himself, and the movie commences within an Andersonian recreation of the author’s actual “writing hut.” Here, Fiennes, after muttering the peculiarities that spark his creative process, embarks on narrating a tale that claims to be a true story.
Dahl’s original narrative spans the globe and could conceivably translate into an extravagant multi-location production. However, Anderson confines the action to meticulously crafted sets, evoking the work of Czech filmmaker Karel Zeman, who seamlessly integrated live-action actors into animated backgrounds. All the actors, who also serve as narrators and characters, directly address the camera with a rapid, understated delivery, preserving Dahl’s own words.
Recognizing the irreplaceable dry wit of Dahl’s prose, Anderson refrains from attempting to improve upon it. Describing the enigmatic title character, Dahl’s words elucidate, “Men like Henry Sugar are to be found drifting like seaweed all over the world. They can be seen especially in London, New York, Paris, Nassau, Montego Bay, Cannes, and San Tropez. They are not particularly bad men, but they are not good men either. They are of no particular importance; they’re simply part of the decoration.”
The story assumes a meta-narrative quality, taking flight as Henry (portrayed impeccably by Benedict Cumberbatch) becomes restless and dares to pluck the slimmest volume from a wealthy friend’s library shelf. This seemingly inconspicuous book turns out to be a treatise on a man who possesses the extraordinary ability to see without the use of his eyes. The role of this remarkable individual is played by Ben Kingsley, with doctors confirming his unique gift portrayed by Dev Patel and Richard Ayoade. What captures Henry’s imagination is the man’s capacity to perceive the markings on downturned playing cards. As a somewhat inept gambler, Henry endeavors to master this art, immersing himself in the esoteric teachings of a cantankerous yogi and withdrawing from society for several years in his quest for mastery.
The notion of gaining the power to cheat at cards was previously explored in Roger Corman’s 1963 film, “X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes.” In that narrative, the power was chemically induced and led to existential challenges for the protagonist, paralleling themes later explored in “Oppenheimer.”
However, Henry’s journey takes a different turn, offering a gentler narrative arc than one might expect from Dahl. Anderson’s portrayal of this spiritual transformation in his signature jewel-box style is disarming and beautiful. In “Henry Sugar,” his directorial approach is not overtly eccentric but exquisitely centered, with the film’s form elegantly complementing its content.
This review was written during the 2023 Venice Film Festival. “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” is set to debut in theaters on September 20th and will subsequently be available for streaming on Netflix starting September 27th.