Synopsis: A beloved Roald Dahl story about a rich man who learns about a guru who can see without using his eyes and then sets out to master the skill to cheat at gambling.
Stars: Ralph Fiennes, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dev Patel, Sir Ben Kingsley, Richard Ayoade
Director: Wes Anderson
Running Length: 37 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Earlier this year, director Wes Anderson and I had a bit of a falling out over Asteroid City. This (one-sided) disagreement came about because as much as I was looking forward to the star-packed quirky dramedy, I felt it failed to deliver on its premise. Despite a flawless production design and arguably technically perfect, the story was impenetrable to the point of alienation, which isn’t the Anderson I had grown to love over the past decade. Nominated for seven Oscars over his career, there’s little doubt that the filmmaker has the vision and voice to convey a meaningful message in live-action or stop-motion animated movies. However, my trip to Asteroid City was a bust.
Fences have been mended with The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, though, because cracking open this short film brings back the Anderson we are familiar with. It’s not so much that Anderson is returning to a safe space he’s visited before; it’s that he’s circling around to the type of fast-moving, playful entertainment that he seems to be having fun with. Even better, the material is a natural fit with the director’s trademark flourishes, making it not just Anderson’s best work since his 2015 high point, The Grand Budapest Hotel, but his most serious chance for an Oscar yet.
Based on one short story from a collection published by Roald Dahl in 1977, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar could be described as a story within a story within a story. A narrator (Ralph Fiennes, The Menu), presumably Dahl himself, tells the tale of Henry Sugar (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Courier), who comes across a book written by a Doctor in Calcutta documenting a strange incident.
In the pages of the book, the doctor (Dev Patel, The Green Knight) documents the fantastic tale of how he met a man (Ben Kingsley, Jules) who could “see without using his eyes.” The doctor transcribes his interview with the mysterious man who describes how he came to have this gift, a gift Henry then tries to learn and benefit from. But is there more to this power than meets the human eye? How this knowledge affects his life and livelihood is the moral of the piece, and, of course, we wouldn’t want to give that away.
Anderson’s cache in film has allowed him to gather these tremendously large casts of A-list stars, but here it’s nice to see him working with a small cast of top talent, several of them taking on multiple roles throughout the 37-minute film. Staged for the viewer to see all the tricks and movie magic of sets moving on and off the screen, it’s as visually stimulating as any Anderson film and maybe even more so because it moves so quickly. The dialogue is fired out rapidly with military precision, yet you never lose the thread of what is being conveyed or understand where we are headed next. You need the right people for this project, and Cumberbatch, Patel, Kingsley, and the delightful Fiennes are absolute pros.
Could The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, a short film, be the movie that finally wins Anderson his Oscar? He’s been nominated as a director, writer, producer, and for animated feature, but this is such a terrific all-around package that I could easily see this making the top five list and, based on name recognition alone, getting the votes to win. In a year when the director had a feature film released in theaters (its worldwide gross is 51 million) that will surely be up for technical awards, it would only boost his chances of a nomination/win for Live Action Short Film. And that would be a wonderful story, indeed.
Releasing on Netflix as the first in a quartet of Roald Dahl shorts by director Wes Anderson.