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The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar Review: Absolute And Pure Delight

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Image was shared on X. (courtesy netflix)

New Delhi:

The precision of the craft of a meticulous miniaturist and the unbridled imagination of a master raconteur are harmonised with phenomenal perfection in FI, the first of Wes Anderson’s four adaptations for Netflix of lesser-known stories by Roald Dahl. The result is absolute and pure delight.

The film is so delectably and delicately put together that one hesitates to call it cinematic. It is much, much more. It is a demonstration, and a celebration, of the effort that goes into the act of creation, be it with words, colours, sounds, images or, simply, the human imagination. In The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, Anderson orchestrates a multiplicity of strands that coalesce and yet stand apart from each other.

Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox inspired Anderson’s first stop-motion animation film, which ranks among the director’s most loved works.

In bringing The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar to the screen in all its glory, and then some, Anderson’s screenplay and direction intrinsically underscore how preparing for the process of creating a new work of art is just as important as the actual creation. The artifice inherent in The Wonderful Story is not disguised or concealed in any manner. It is instead distinctly outlined and laid out before us to see, grasp and savour.

Like they might do as part a small theatre repertory, five actors – in order of appearance, Ralph Fiennes, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dev Patel, Ben Kingsley and Richard Ayoade – play more than one role each. Not just that, they also narrate their own stories, directly addressing the audience.

In a crucial respect, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar serves as an extension of Anderson’s last two feature films, Asteroid City and The French Dispatch. In the latter, a freakishly inventive film that divided the critics, he has journalists read out their own stories to the audience.

In Asteroid City, actors, writers and theatre persons inhabit and animate a play-within-a-television-show-within-a-film in which the lines separating the different modes of storytelling are blurred.

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar film opens with a version Roald Dahl (Ralph Fiennes) settling down to begin writing. He is in his “writing hut” – I’ve been in this hut for 30 years now,” he says, his face half-turned away from the camera. What he says next probably mirrors what Anderson does as a filmmaker as he gets set to shoot a new film – plan everything down to the minutest detail before embarking on the project.

“Before I start writing,” says the author in his writing space, “I like to make sure I have everything around me that I’m going to need. Cigarettes, of course. Some coffee and chocolates. And (I) always make sure that I have a sharp pencil before I start. I have six pencils… then I like to clean my writing board… and then, finally, one starts…”

Anderson uses means that are not just visible and dynamic but they also complete what the film is trying to convey through the combination of live actors delivering their lines at a galloping pace and the backdrops, many of which are painted, against which they are placed.

He employs animation and other means of evoking a sense of make-believe – when characters with yogic powers levitate, seats are painted to merge with the background to create the illusion of a human floating several inches above the surface. That apart, stage hands move props in and out of the frames.

The writer introduces the audience to the titular man, a wealthy man who has “never done a day’s work in his life”. Henry Sugar (Benedict Cumberbatch) then introduces us to Dr Z.Z. Chatterjee (Dev Patel) as he reads a little blue exercise book that he has picked from a friend’s well-stocked library.

Dr Chatterjee, sitting in the common room of a Calcutta hospital in 1935, leads us to Imdad Khan (Ben Kingsley), “the man who can see without eyes”. Imdad walks in through the door and is ticked off by the doctor. He apologises but stands his ground. He has something to prove.

To test that Imdad Khan can indeed do what he claims that he can, the doctor, with his assistant, Dr Marshall (Richard Ayouade), applies glue to the man’s eyelids, seals his eyes with dough and places a helmet-like bandage over his head and face.

Nothing can stop Imdad Khan – he can see right through. It is his turn now to tell the audience about a Great Yogi (Ayouade again) whose powers of concentration were so strong that he could see without using his eyes. Imdad trains himself to do the same and his story (recounted word-by-word in Dr Chatterjee’s slim book) plants an idea in the head of Henry Sugar.

Henry is terrible at gambling and he sees the possibilities inherent in the power to read downturned cards. It could bring him great success at the ten casinos that he frequents in London. But it is an ability that isn’t easily acquired and even after it is there is a price to be paid.

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, presents Dahl’s prose almost verbatim, with even the descriptive “he said” and “I said” not deviated from. The purity of the written text is wedded to the magnificence of the visualisation. The result is magical blend of art and artifice, both of which are of tangible, truthful proportions.

Henry Sugar – that isn’t his real name, he reveals and asserts that his real name cannot be divulged – is convinced of the fact the story that he is a part of is true. Had this been a made-up story, he says, instead of a true one it would have been necessary to invent a surprising and exciting end… something dramatic and unusual… This story is fact… Because it is a true story it must have the true ending.”

It does. Everything that Wes Anderson packs into these 39 minutes of sheer brilliance rings true. The beauty of The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar lies in its wondrous, exquisitely embellished melding of its perceptible physical and spatial dimensions with the power of words, gestures and guises to fire the imagination. Isn’t that the purpose of all great films and stories?

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is, by all reckoning, a magnificent adaptation of an outstanding story.


Benedict Cumberbatch, Dev Patel, Ralph Fiennes


Wes Anderson