For 2023, Wes Anderson has made it a resolution of sorts to create films centered around finding purpose and meaning in existence. Such questions were posed in Asteroid City, with Anderson refraining from offering a clear resolution to the observed ponderings. His latest offering is part of a collection of short films, each directed by him, based on stories penned by Roald Dahl. The longest of these films, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, much like Asteroid City, is also about seeking meaning and purpose in one’s life. But unlike its predecessor, the answer for existential accomplishment is straightforward.
Roald Dahl (Ralph Fiennes) sits at his writer’s desk and describes his process for putting ideas to paper. He begins recanting the story of Henry Sugar (Benedict Cumberbatch) once ready. His writing room is the first set piece that is unmistakably part of the Anderson aesthetic. The story, he insists, is true, and somewhere amid fiction undoubtedly lies a relatable truth to many. Henry Sugar was a rich man who had never worked a day in his life. His boring life led him to a library, where a slim book that was placed just off alignment from its larger more organized shelf mates caught his attention. Inside, Henry reads a report by Dr. Chatterjee (Dev Patel) chronicling the curious case of Imdad Khan (Ben Kingsley), “The Man Who Sees Without Using His Eyes”. Khan is set to display his talents on the stage and wants to be accurately blindfolded by medical professionals. He takes his unique situation to Dr Chatterjee and his partner, Dr. Marshall (Richard Ayoade), who are immediately intrigued by their subject.
Khan explains that he acquired such abilities through years of discipline and training. Dr. Chatterjee, completely in awe of this, vows to preserve Khan’s life story in words. Nevertheless, what fascinates Henry the most about this case is how Khan could see through playing cards, an excellent skill to have for seamlessly alleviating casinos of their money. Henry embarks on his own meditative journey to acquire these abilities and eventually becomes successful. However, once he has realized his ambitions, he feels unfulfilled. Ultimately, he decides to continue using his skills to help others financially through different means.
The story is straightforward and simple enough that viewers might be tempted to want to garner metaphorical meaning. However, this story of a person on a path to fulfillment does not need deeper analysis. In its simplicity, Anderson has created the antidote for the anxiety-laced existential crisis the characters in Asteroid City are forced to endure.
Simple, too, is the set design. No less gorgeous and detail-oriented than Anderson’s previous films, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar shifts to different locations via interchanging backgrounds that are put into place as the story is narrated. It is a novel and an appropriate choice that adds character to the film. The movie is narrated as well, with the characters mostly sticking to Dahl’s words. Anderson successfully nips and tucks at Dahl’s dialogue as he sees fit. Each actor details their character’s particular situation. The presenters maintain a swift yet steady tempo when delivering the narrative via enveloping fourth wall breaking. At times, it may be difficult to keep up with the numerous words, but any few tempi click slower, and the excessive dialogue would become cumbersome. The result could have been catastrophic in the hands of lesser talent. Instead, Anderson’s cast delivers the necessary means of physical and verbal inflection to keep audiences’ attention.
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is indeed wonderful. Netflix once again bet big, this time on Roald Dahl and his estate. This initial foray into his short stories does not disappoint. The uncomplicated story, along with the aesthetic and charm Anderson is known for, will plaster a 40-minute grin on audiences’ faces. While nihilism, pessimism, and cynicism are at the forefront of countless media, they fail to find a place in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. This sugary treat sits well like a warm cup of chamomile during the cooling autumn days, and perhaps, more importantly, it serves as the next step in someone’s journey toward fulfillment.