The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (2023) Short Film Review

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (2023)
Director: Wes Anderson
Screenwriter: Wes Anderson
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dev Patel, Richard Ayoade, Ben Kingsley

Wes Anderson has entered the Oscars’ Live Action Short race with his direct-to-Netflix re-telling of Roald Dahl’s 1977 short story collection, “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar”.

The star-studded screen presentation tells Dahl’s unique and more adult-skewing story with the utmost faith, a series of on-screen actors reading the words of his tale as if dialogue spoken directly to each of us, the actors even facing the camera. This level of artifice is reinforced by the film’s theatrical presentation – sets rotating per the tale told, actors dressing and undressing, wigging and de-wigging, within the frame to advance the narrative. This is a short film that is presented more like a stage play, directly lifted from a series of books. It’s quite the concoction.

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar tells of its titular character (Benedict Cumberbatch) learning to see through objects and then using that talent to better the world around him. Within that narrative, we see how Henry evolves from stuck-up rich boy to established good-hearted conman, and witness his moral compass take a turn when he learns that the best thing to do is use his power for good. There are sequences that occur entirely within a piece of text Henry Sugar comes across, and more within the story told within that text (by Dev Patel’s Dr. Chatterjee). Anderson weaves his way through the disparate elements to ensure a followable and enjoyable 40 minutes of imaginative and unique cinema.

This short film is not attempting to unravel the purpose or politics behind the short stories Roald Dahl put to the page more than 45 years ago. It is, instead, concerned simply with bringing those pages to life. Rotated sets are wheeled in and out of a frame that seems still for long periods. This could, perhaps, have been a film that was told in just one shot, but Anderson uses his trademarked editing style to punctuate story beats with moments of levity, to bring new perspective, and often to simply move the story along. There’s a sense that each change represents the lights going down on one scene and raising for another during a stage show, and the many other elements of this borderline experimental project reinforce that. Ralph Fiennes plays Roald Dahl himself, as well as a police officer Henry Sugar comes into contact with after winning his first handful of money. Ben Kingsley plays multiple characters, too. In fact, each of the central five actors do, all of them embracing the theatre-like nature of Anderson’s approach to this particular text.

It’s one of those short films that simply wouldn’t exist were it not for the reputation of the filmmaker and the dedication towards securing reputable directors that Netflix have shown over the past half a decade. This is, for a short film, high budget. It’s star-studded. It’s directed by Wes Anderson and is adapting some of the most famous work of its highly-reputable century-defining author, Roald Dahl. This would not have been cheap, and it probably won’t reach a guaranteed audience through which to make its money back either, but it is a high quality production that might become a means through which young people might interact or become reacquainted with Roald Dahl’s work, and we should always strive for good and meaningful art over financially viable products in the realm of cinema.

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar isn’t trying to define itself by a powerful message, a meaningful deconstruction, or even a specifically noteworthy angle, but it does define itself by its high level of aesthetic artistry that combines exceptional sets with great makeup and Anderson’s all-too-familiar framing to present something unique and expressive but ultimately faithful to the material it is adapting. It won’t be a film that converts many an Anderson naysayer, but it will certainly satisfy those looking for more of the director they love or a glimpse at a faithful Roald Dahl adaptation.

It’s not the best live action short nominated at the 96th Academy Awards, but given the power of the names attached (from Dahl to Anderson through to Cumberbatch and beyond), it will likely win. If you have a Netflix subscription and a spare 40 minutes, you could do a lot worse.

Score: 18/24

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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