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Home > Poison (2023): A Review

Poison (2023): A Review

Poison Official Poster Benedict Cumberbatch as Harry Pope. Image courtesy of Netflix

Roald Dahl’s “Poison” Is Efficacious

Poison (2023), director Wes Anderson’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s suspenseful and macabre short thriller, is a layered and ironically twisted fable. Dahl is majorly known as the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) and James and the Giant Peach (1961), he wrote macabre short stories with ironically twisted endings many of which were published in magazines and short story anthologies and adapted into episodes of TV anthology series.

 “Poison,” first published in Collier’s magazine in 1950 may be his most adapted and most enduring work of adult fiction. Writer Joyce Carol Oates has called it “one of Dahl’s most brilliantly realized stories.”

Dahl’s “Poison” is extraordinarily elegant. It’s a multifaceted literary gem. With only a few essential elements – three characters (not counting the protagonist’s nemesis, a venomous snake), a bed, and a few props – Dahl assembles an ingenious and original story that is multilayered and ironic. 

At first glance, it’s a man versus beast thriller. Though this beast is a man-killer, this one isn’t an embodiment of evil or a monster worthy of a creature feature like an anaconda; it’s a ten-inch-long krait not uncommon to the story’s setting of Bengal, India during the end of British rule.

And it’s never actually seen. Some heroes of this type of story must marvelously fight or outwit the beast to survive. Conversely, the protagonist of “Poison,” Harry Pope’s challenge is to lie still and relax so as to not startle the snake that might be lying under his sheet and not provoke it to bite him.  

While Harry does his utmost to lie as still as a corpse he’s trying not to become, he manages to engage his friend Timber Woods and their acquaintance Dr. Ganderbai into solving his deadly problem and coming to his rescue. Under this plot is a fable with the same moral Dahl imparts in one of his other short thrillers, “The Swan”; essentially, a person in extremis reveals their true character. 

There’s still another, literally darker, moral in “Poison”; regardless of their lofty education and authority and selfless service, a black or brown person is beneath a racist’s contempt.

Dev Patel as Timber Woods, Benedict Cumberbatch as Harry Pope, and Ben Kingsley as Dr. Ganderbai in Poison (2023). Image courtesy of Netflix

Wes Anderson’s Candy Coated Poison

From the beginning, Wes Anderson adds another layer of irony to Poison. The set, like his sets in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, are elegantly delightful, like life-sized, three-dimensional illustrations from a children’s pop-up book in yellow, green, and blue hues. 

As Timber Woods (Dev Patel, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar) approaches the bungalow that he shares with Harry Pope (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar), he recites Poison’s narrative through the fourth wall, directly to the viewer with the meticulous diction and machine gun pace of a screwball comedy’s dialogue. Through this, Anderson candy coats Dahl’s nasty and macabre story.

Just as Anderson never shows the sadistic and murderous louts, Ernie and Raymond, who torture the hero of The Swan (2023) until he’s “taken too much” and only shows mimed and animated substitutes for the antihero’s rodent nemeses in The Rat Catcher (2023), he eschews showing the krait. 

It’s a kind of “art of leaving blank”; a concept and technique in classical Chinese art where the audience is engaged to fill in the blank and the aspects that hold that blank space may become more important, at least theoretically. In The Swan, without Ernie and Raymond, the Narrator’s (Rupert Friend) recitation of the story becomes more important. In The Rat Catcher, without actual rats, it’s the Rat Man (Ralph Fiennes) revealing himself as a fantastic geek that challenges his mimed, horrifying feats.

In both cases, the cerebral and abstract upstage the visceral and actual, and Dahl’s macabre thrillers become Anderson’s metanarratives; self-referential storytelling about storytelling.   

Benedict Cumberbatch as Harry Pope. Image courtesy of Netflix

The Wonderful and Questionable Cast of Poison

Anderson casts most of the principal actors in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dev Patel, Ben Kingsley, and Ralph Fiennes in Poison. Cumberbatch, Kingsley, and Fiennes are the most credible. Cumberbatch’s Harry Pope is the keystone of this movie.

It’s a ticklish role where macabre and desperate terror must be expressed with only the most minimal facial expressions while lying deathly still. Cumberbatch succeeds. Kingsley’s Dr. Ganderbai strategizes and executes the essential actions of the story and evinces erudition,authority, and efficiency. As in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, Fiennes accurately portrays Roald Dahl whose function here is a kind of authorial omniscience used to reveal dire information about the krait. 

Patel’s Timber Woods is questionable, but Timber is a questionable character. In the Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1962) “Poison” TV episode, Wendell Corey’s Timber lacks sympathy and subtlety. 

In the “Poison” episode of Tales of the Unexpected (1979-1988, an anthology series of Dahl short stories hosted by Dahl himself), Anthony Steel’s Timber is more sympathetic but lacks subtlety as well. In neither portrayal is the character very keen and both betray at least a trace of foolishness. Some characteristics of Patel’s Timber bear a resemblance to those of his TV forebears. 

He’s sympathetic, but his fantastic, screwball comedy-style line delivery and his wide-eyed mugging is comic to dubious effect. He’s ironic, but he’s also incongruent. 

Finally, there’s the issue of race which erupts as the crux of one of this fable’s morals. Timber has browned over the years portrayed by a white actor in 1958, a half-Indian and half-white actor (like Ben Kingsley) in 1980, and now, a Gujarati Indian actor which affixes yet another layer of irony to this movie.   

Dev Patel as Timber Woods and Ben Kingsley as Dr. Ganderbai in Poison (2023). Image courtesy of Netflix

Wes Anderson’s Camera Is Poison’s Pen

Anderson is an auteur, a director whose framing, mise en scène (the arrangement of his scenery and props), palette, and camera placement and movement make them the cinematic author of the story. 

Using his visual signature as Poison’s pen. True to form, his compositions are quadrilateral and are magnetized toward symmetry. His palette runs the gamut from warm khaki and gold hues to jade green and cool teal; they’re the colors of India during the end of British rule, the setting of the story. 

His camera literally goes to extremes looking down from the ceiling to frame Harry immobilized in bed flanked by Timber and Dr. Ganderbai as a triptych or looking up from the floor so a character can monstrously loom. As in The Rat Catcher, Anderson’s camera dollies, gliding from side to side, changing scenes to all intents and purposes on his ingeniously designed set.       

In Poison, Anderson paints a vivid, moving picture. His direction adds an ironic and questionable candy coating to Dahl’s inherently ironic, multilayered story. Inside a uniquely elegant thriller, twisted like the snake could be under Harry’s sheet, lies a fable with a hard-bitten moral.

Poison Offical Netflix Trailer

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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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Omid Rad is a freelance writer, movie lover and overall geek.