It’s hard to say whether Wes Anderson’s sensibility is perfectly suited to that of Roald Dahl or the other way around. Whichever it may be, the “Fantastic Mr. Fox” author’s “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” seems to have found its ideal screen incarnation in the “Fantastic Mr. Fox” director’s hands: a fanciful 40-minute short featuring a slew of new collaborators (Ben Kingsley, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dev Patel, Richard Ayoade) in the helmer’s traditional head-on diorama style. At that tight running time, it’s dauntingly dense, but also ready to compete in the Oscar short category, where it would be better than every winner since Martin McDonagh’s “Six Shooter” way back in 2006.
Instead of being a one-off, it’s just the start of a larger project, with three more Anderson-crafted Dahl adaptations — “The Swan,” “The Ratcatcher” and “Poison” — coming to Netflix in late September. “Henry Sugar” lands soon after “Asteroid City” and repeats that movie’s dizzyingly Brechtian nested-narrative approach, beginning at what appears to be the outermost layer, with Ralph Fiennes playing the author himself. Later, we’ll realize that the movie knows this is an actor appearing as Dahl, since Fiennes also fills a second role as a London bobby. With a sly meta-textual wink, Anderson acknowledges the artificiality of it all, drawing attention to the stage tricks used to jump between locations. For whatever reason, Anderson’s conceit is that the entire project is taking place in an old-timey movie studio, with rear projection, forced perspective and other devices employed for our amusement.
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After Fiennes-as-Dahl (in a stylized version of his writing shed at Gipsy House, where Anderson resided for a time) briefly describes his writing process, he gets up from his chair, steps out his front door and begins to recite the titular short story. What follows are not Dahl’s actual words but Anderson’s faithful-in-spirit take on them, which calls for wall-to-wall voiceover as various characters pass the baton of telling the story. Dahl introduces Henry Sugar (Cumberbatch), a rich and idle bachelor interested primarily in increasingly his fortune, who stumbles upon a strange book entitled “A Report on Imdad Kahn: The Man Who Sees Without Using His Eyes” in his library.
No sooner has he opened the book than the voiceover shifts to one Dr. Chatterjee (Patel, also appearing in dual roles), reading his own report. A perfect addition to Anderson’s ever-expanding company of actors, Kingsley plays Kahn, a yoga-trained street magician who demonstrates his unique skill to a pair of skeptical doctors (Ayoade plays the other one). Eager to discover how Kahn managed to master this technique, Chatterjee interrogates Kahn, who next assumes narrator duties. Now four levels deep, Dahl’s “Wonderful Story” is starting to feel like “The Saragossa Manuscript,” that great matryoshka-esque puzzle, with its intricate structure of stories within stories.
Anderson permits himself to make a few improvements along the way, one of which calls for Cumberbatch (as Sugar) to become a corny master of disguise. For the sake of this review, it’s the director’s way of interpreting Dahl that proves most interesting, as he asks the project’s relatively small (but starry) cast to skip from England to India, and later all around the world, while rolling rudimentary screens on and off stage around them. At one point, the seemingly incessant narration actually falls silent, as Henry Sugar stands on his balcony and tosses a bundle of money into the street, one £20 note at a time.
How he arrives at this enlightenment and where he goes from there should surprise even Dahl’s fans (those who don’t know this story, at least), since the writer was frequently accused of putting his characters through all kinds of suffering. This tale is different, building to a happy ending — one complicated by Dahl’s assertion that, “had this been a made-up story instead of a true one, it would have been necessary to invent” a more poetic outcome. Although Anderson streamlines large swaths of the source material, he clearly delights in the needlessly complicated way Dahl delivers his fable: the layers of narration, the use of repetition, the funny strategy of telling audiences how he came by the story in the first place. Practically all that’s missing is an appearance by Anderson himself, the way Alfred Hitchcock used to present episodes of his television series. Then again, one could say he’s present in every frame.
Is there any director working today whose style is more conspicuous — or influential, for that matter? Anderson’s aesthetic has crystalized considerably since 2007’s “Hotel Chevalier,” his most high-profile short before this (and a prologue of sorts to his last India-set project, “The Darjeeling Limited”). His decision to frame this ”Wonderful Story” in an almost-square aspect ratio merely concentrates our attention on how his usual team of collaborators (most notably DP Robert Yeoman and production designer Adam Stockhausen) bring his vision to life. As much as this film bears Anderson’s fingerprints, it’s first and foremost a Roald Dahl project, to the extent that most of the DNA traces back to the author. The very mention of paternity brings to mind Dahl’s bawdiest novel, “My Uncle Oswald,” about an elaborate scheme to obtain the sperm of brilliant 20th-century figures, from Einstein to Freud. Now there’s a project it would be fun to see Anderson adapt!
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