Film Reviews

“Anderson surgically picks apart the conventions of cinema and steps into bewildering territory” – Film Review: The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar

Christy Clark

Wes Anderson fans might be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed at the acclaimed film-director’s 2023 splurge after a three year hiatus: first the space-infused Asteroid City, and now four short films inspired by Roald Dahl, all available on Netflix – including The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. Impact’s Christy Clark reviews.

Needless to say, though, we’re glad he’s back. In his latest effort, Anderson employs a similar story-within-a-story approach as Asteroid City, as a writer (Ralph Fiennes) introduces us to the rich, greedy, narcissistic Henry Sugar (Benedict Cumberbatch). 

The first half of the short film takes us away from the titular Sugar, introducing “a true and accurate report of everything that took place” around the prophetic Imdad Khan (Ben Kingsley). 

The dissonance of colour in these scenes is striking – from the uniformly white hospital ward, to the Indian rainforests sprawling with colour and life. Anderson takes the audience on a journey – one comically referenced by the characters at every turn (whatever happened to the unknowing film character?)

So compelling and hybrid is the approach of the scene

In a scene taking place in a hut, deep within the forest, Kingsley is invited to meditate, a moment at which I nearly joined in – so compelling and hybrid is the approach of the scene. As always, the ensemble cast could pass for a theatrical troupe, so seamlessly does each character slip into their multiple roles.

Anderson’s theatrical knack of doing this – evident in his last two films French Dispatch and Asteroid – even plays into the narrative later when Sugar encounters a rich man in a casino, played by Kingsley who also plays the then-deceased Khan. Has “The Man Who Sees Without Eyes” defied science once again and come back to life? Or is this just evidence of Anderson’s chameleon-like cast?

It so successfully flows out of itself into the world that we know, and yet it’s so compelling in itself

Humour is at the fore in Henry Sugar, aside from the narrative intrusions, at one point Sugar notes that, “Had this been a made-up story instead of a true one, it would have been necessary at this point to invent some kind of a surprising and exciting end for the thing, something dramatic and unusual. It’s a terrific attempt from Anderson at making fun of the quirky, odd film devices he has become so renowned for using. That’s what I loved about the short film, it so successfully flows out of itself into the world that we know, and yet it’s so compelling in itself.

Like in the blanched hospital rooms at the beginning of the short, Anderson surgically picks apart the conventions of cinema and steps into bewildering territory, even by his standards – Sugar can even see the anxiety pulsing through his own veins at one stage.

If I were to summarise the short in a sentence, I’d call it a story recapping how a rich, mean man, bent on getting richer, suffers a surprise transformation, via a science-defying guru, a foray through the Indian rainforest, and even the precise administering of dough into a man’s eyes on a hospital bed. In other words, it’s wacky and, if the rating didn’t suggest it already, you really ought to see it.

I’d note that the short includes next to no women

The narrative edges to a close when Sugar and the first narrator, Fiennes (now a policeman), come to blows at the door of Sugar’s London apartment. At this point, it’s hard to predict whom the narrative will arrive from, as well as which way it will go.

If pressed for a criticism – something rife in Anderson’s work, I’ll admit – I’d note that the short includes next to no women. As close as we get, at least from the perspective of dialogue, is Sugar himself, in incognito as a rich lady. As good as the performances are in the film, it’s surprising to see Anderson completely ignore women in his casting.

And yet Henry Sugar is a reminder of what Anderson is capable of, the creative corners he possesses the prowess to dive into. It seems apt to end this review on a reference to Anderson’s earlier work – films this short is every bit as good as. From the windows of Sugar’s apartment, the distant buildings appear greatly reminiscent to those on the poster of The Grand Budapest Hotel. In a film that calls back to many of the director’s quirky traditions, this call to the past feels like a cherry to top an excelling short film – a subtle hint to a glorious career of work Henry Sugar can only be said to develop further.

Christy Clark

Featured image courtesy of Alex Watkin. Permission to use granted to Impact. No changes were made to this image.

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