The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar
Photograph: Netflix
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The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar

3 out of 5 stars

Wes Anderson’s chatterbox Roald Dahl tale is a Netflix short that’s deliciously decorative but lacking in bite

Phil de Semlyen

Time Out says

The first result of Netflix’s megabucks purchase of the Roald Dahl Story Company gives Wes Anderson the chance to spin us a quick yarn in his own mannered, playful style. Unfortunately, its 39 minutes unfold in such motor-mouthed haste, it feels like a dad belting through a bedtime story while the football’s on downstairs.

Henry Sugar, the antihero in a Dahl short story penned towards the end of the writer’s life, is ‘not a particularly bad man but not a particularly good one either’. We learn this from the author himself, embodied here by Wes veteran Ralph Fiennes. He shares his neat-freak writing rituals (pencil-sharpening, writing-board-cleaning, arranging his man-shed with Anderson-esque precision), before clearing the stage for Sugar to pick up the story. A wealthy gadabout and gambler, he’s played with Savile Row-tailored insouciance by Benedict Cumberbatch.

Perusing the library of a country house, Sugar stumbles upon a long-forgotten memoir recounting the story of a travelling Indian performer, Imdad Khan (Ben Kingsley), who can see without using his eyes. That thread is quickly picked up by Doctor Chatterjee (Dev Patel), who with his colleague (Richard Ayoade), helps put a seal of medical endorsement on the man’s mysterious gifts.

Then it’s the turn of Kingsley’s guru to share the origins of his powers via a traipse through the Indian jungle that takes in levitating fakirs and lavish, Henri Rousseau-ish set design. Sugar quickly twigs that mastering the skill could mean untold riches in London’s casinos.

Boasting more framing devices than a window fitter’s van, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar’s hyperactive theatrically and mile-a-minute narration won’t be for everyone. The same Matryoshka doll of interlayered stories worked a treat in Anderson’s most recent film, Asteroid City, where there was space for each to breathe. Condensed in a short, it’s a mad scramble to keep up. 

  Anderson provides more framing devices than a window fitter’s van

Anderson grants his audience a sense of cosy complicity via fourth-wall-breaking asides, but there’s not much to get purchase on in a thinly-sketched morality tale. Perhaps because Dahl himself penned ‘Henry Sugar’ as a generous retort to those who dubbed him ‘Roald the Rotten’ for his supposedly misanthropic worldview, the upshot is a strangely toothless affair that lacks the bite of Anderson’s previous, sharper-edged Dahl adaptation, Fantastic Mr Fox. This one’s at the style-over-substance end of the filmmaker’s spectrum.

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar premiered at the Venice Film Festival. It’s in US theaters Sep 20 and on Netflix worldwide from Sep 27.

Cast and crew

  • Director:Wes Anderson
  • Screenwriter:Wes Anderson
  • Cast:
    • Benedict Cumberbatch
    • Rupert Friend
    • Ben Kingsley
    • Dev Patel
    • Ralph Fiennes
    • Richard Ayoade
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