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Home > ‘The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar’ (2023): A Review

‘The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar’ (2023): A Review

Auteur Wes Anderson makes a complex motion picture of Roald Dahl’s short story “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” which may either delight or annoy.

A Cinematic Wonder By Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson, best known for Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), is an auteur: a film director who writes the stories of his movies with signature mise en scène (the arrangement of a set), blocking (the arrangement of the actors on a set), palette, lighting, and camera placement and movement. Through his films, he’s more than distinctly recognizable. He’s sui generis, literally unique. He doesn’t just make films. He makes illustrated stories with his distinctive moving pictures. When Netflix acquired the Roald Dahl Story Company, who better to adapt this Dahl short story for the screen than Anderson? After all, he’d already been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature for his screen adaptation of Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. 

The Wonderful Story of Imdad Khan

In the beginning, Henry Sugar (Benedict Cumberbatch) isn’t so wonderful. He’s just a gambler endowed with an air of prosperity. Then, he chances upon a book in a library, a treatise by a Dr. Chatterjee (Dev Patel) about a strange and fascinating man named Imdad Khan (Ben Kingsley). He sought Dr. Chatterjee to perform a particular medical procedure that involved sealing his eyes shut and then blindfolding him in bandages. Khan is a featured circus performer who bills himself as “The Man Who Sees Without Using His Eyes.” He routinely undergoes this manner of procedure to assure his audiences that his act of seeing – not only through his sealed and blindfolded eyes but through items like the backs of playing cards to distinguish their suits and numbers – is genuine. Of course, this piques the gambling Sugar’s interest, and he peruses through Dr. Chatterjee’s transcription of Khan’s training in seeing without using his eyes under the tutelage of a yogi. Henry Sugar steals the book, and, with its instructions, his life becomes wonderful.  

Wes Anderson’s Cinematic Matryoshka Dolls Theater 

Anderson’s plot of Henry Sugar’s wonderful story echoes the structure of nested Russian Matryoshka dolls: opening one story reveals another theatrical narrator and narrative nested inside of it. First, there’s Roald Dahl (Ralph Fiennes), who is the author of the story. If Dahl isn’t a household name, his children’s stories are the aforementioned Fantastic Mr. Fox, The BFG, Matilda – and most famously, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (adapted for the screen as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory [1971]). Sugar takes the stage and opens up the story of Dr. Chatterjee, who rapidly delivers his discourse on Imdad Khan through the fourth wall directly to the viewer. Khan narrates his recount as a make-up artist transforms him into a younger version of himself, and stagehands change the backdrops. Anderson, the auteur, the author of this story of Dahl’s story about Henry Sugar, is on the outside filming all of this with his elegantly moving camera. 

Auteur Wes Anderson makes a complex motion picture of Roald Dahl’s short story “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” which may either delight or annoy.
Dev Patel stars as Dr. Chatterjee, Ben Kingsley as Imdad Khan, and Richard Ayoade as Dr. Marshall in “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar.” Image courtesy of Netflix.

Wes Anderson’s Repertory Company

Some auteurs are known for their collaborations with a particular actor or actors: Martin Scorsese (Killers of the Flower Moon [2023]) with Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio; Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction [1994]) with Samuel L. Jackson, and Uma Thurman. Anderson has banded with a virtual repertory company of actors: Luke and Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Jason Schwarzman, and Tilda Swinton, just to name a few. Here, he’s assembled an all-star British troupe that reunites him with Ralph Fiennes from The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), who joins Benedict Cumberbatch, Dev Patel (best known for Slumdog Millionaire [2008]), Richard Ayoade (best known for the TV series The IT Crowd [2006-2013]), and Ben Kingsley. 

Of course, all of these award-winning actors perform well, and, like a true theater company, they play more than one role. Patel doubles as Henry Sugar’s accountant, John Winston. Ayoade plays Dr. Chatterjee’s associate, Dr. Marshall, and reappears unrecognizably as the yogi. After Kingsley is featured as Imdad Khan, he makes a cameo appearance as a casino croupier. Fiennes portrays Dahl but also delightfully chews the scenery as a police officer. Cumberbatch plays Sugar with his established brand of cool, eccentric British intelligence that was elementary in his breakout role as the eponymous detective of the TV series Sherlock (2010-2017). Here, in the arc of Sugar’s character, that cool thaws. 

A Wonderful Pop-up Motion Picture Book

Picture books are wonderful. Especially pop-up picture books where three-dimensional scenes leap from the page. The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is like a pop-up motion picture book. True to Anderson’s form, the mise en scène and blocking is classical, balanced. The palette could be from a child’s deluxe box of crayons and aqua watercolors. The stage set moves like the scenes in a pop-up book as stagehands manipulate it. Downstage, the meticulously costumed actors briskly talk and narrate the story.  As an auteur, Anderson’s motion picture realizes and complements Dahl’s story.     

Short and Sweet? 

True to its title, this 40-minute film is a wonderful Roald Dahl story as only Wes Anderson could script, stage, and film it. But viewer beware: although this may be a fable, it’s not one of Dahl’s children’s stories, and its telling is avant-garde and complex, if not convoluted. What might delight Anderson’s fans – especially those captivated by Asteroid City (2023) – could annoy the uninitiated, who may not find The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar so sweet. 

American Empirical Pictures, Indian Paintbrush, and Netflix Studios produced The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. It was released on September 27, 2023. The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is streaming on Netflix.  

Auteur Wes Anderson makes a complex motion picture of Roald Dahl’s short story “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” which may either delight or annoy. Benedict Cumberbatch and Ralph Fiennes in “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar.” Benedict Cumberbatch and Ralph Fiennes star in “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar.”
Benedict Cumberbatch and Ralph Fiennes star in “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar.” Image courtesy of Netflix.

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (2023) Official Netflix Trailer

Source: Dead Talk Live

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James Keith La Croix has worked in and around the entertainment industry for years. He majored in film studies at Wayne State University and in Live Action Video at the College for Creative Studies. He wrote reviews, interviews, and features on cinema for the Detroit’s Metro Times.

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Elke Simmons' writing portfolio includes contributions to The Laredo Morning Times, Walt Disney World Eyes and Ears, Extinction Rebellion (XR) News/Blog, and Dead Talk News.