It’s almost October, which means Cozy Anderson Autumn is officially upon us. While 2009’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox was a joyous animated heist movie replete with crunchy leaves and corduroy, Wes Anderson’s four Roald Dahl adaptations for Netflix promise to be shorter, though no less subdued. First up is The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, based on Dahl’s 1976 story of the same name. As with most of Anderson’s recent output, Henry Sugar is a study of layers, artifice, and the human labor required to construct a story — and, in turn, a movie. There’s the initial framing device of an elderly Dahl (Ralph Fiennes) in his writing cottage stepping back in time — or perhaps, letting his cottage swoop offstage — so audiences can meet the titular Henry Sugar (Benedict Cumberbatch), a lazy and unscrupulous gambler. Then the story shifts to India, where Drs. Chatterjee (Dev Patel) and Marshall (Richard Ayoade) meet the mystical yogi Imdad Khan (Ben Kingsley), who acquired the power of super-concentration so that he could see without eyesight. And in the 39-minute film’s last act, Sugar relates his own experience learning this ability and how it changed the course of his life.
These overlapping layers are echoed in the construction of the film itself, which teems with hand-painted backdrops and props that are conspicuously wheeled in and around the actors. Even as the story’s seams are strategically exposed, Anderson’s trademark maximalism somehow looks even more sumptuous than usual, perhaps aided by Dahl’s innate, synergistic outrageousness. The director’s production design is assisted by clever visual flourishes that feel both modern and cozily handcrafted, like they were all sourced on Etsy. Take, for example, a hand-painted box that enables a character to “levitate” in midair, or the hospital’s distinct Chandigarh chairs, which are both trendy statement pieces and roughly period appropriate.
In Anderson’s lithe and formally playful adaptation, Dahl’s story essentially becomes a play; characters recite the text almost word-for-word while addressing the camera directly (including dialogue tags), and each actor also takes on multiple roles. The rapid-fire narration might lean a little discombobulating at times, but even this is mostly mitigated by the pleasing contrast between the film’s many impressive technical achievements and the story’s idealistic moral center. The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar might be a children’s tale and a trifle, but Anderson has found a way to deliver a sophisticated, self-assured, and endlessly charming adaptation that would make Imdad Khan proud — even if he was blindfolded in the back row.
DIRECTOR: Wes Anderson; CAST: Benedict Cumberbatch, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Dev Patel, Richard Aoyade; DISTRIBUTOR: Netflix; STREAMING: September 27; RUNTIME: 39 min.