Anniversary Edition, November 2023
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar: A Colourful Moving Theatre
A review by Dr Ramandeep Mahal
I have finished watching The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, and I must say that it is quite fantastic! Through this 41-minute short film, you embark on a spiritual adventure. It's enlightening and leaves you wondering about the amazing potential we all possess. I also know that some people don't like Wes Anderson's videos because they are visually distracting, with their experimental camera angles, colour schemes, and a host of other innovative techniques. I also know that many people who think they understand film or think it should only be made in a certain way won't like that the actors tell the story almost word-for-word or that the sets are always moving, because that's not how films are usually made; that's how plays are.
The film is based on Roald Dahl's collections of short stories titled, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More which was published in 1977. Most people think that these seven stories are more for teenagers than many of Dahl’s other books, where children are the target audience. Re-entering Dahl's world following the success of his ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’, Anderson uses his distinctively funny storytelling technique to combine whimsy and deep reflection. The narrative walks a tightrope along the boundary between fact and the fantastic, taking inspiration from the astounding assertions of real-life Pakistani mystic Kuda Bux. Robust performances by Richard Ayoade, Ralph Fiennes, Dev Patel, Ben Kingsley, and Rupert Friend give this patchwork of oddities deeper nuances and complexity. But the story's sheer oddity steals the show, serving as a reminder that reality occasionally seems weirder than fiction. There aren't many films like this one. It is made up of many layers. One level is the public. The storyteller is another, as are the sets and the way the stagehands move. Ralph Fiennes plays Dahl. The movie begins in an Anderson-style recreation of the author’s real-life ‘writing hut’ where Fiennes begins to mumble a list of things that inspire him to start writing. He then starts telling what he asserts is a true story. The story is a meta-narrative (unless you accept Dahl's claim that it's true), and it starts when Henry (Benedict Cumberbatch, who is perfect in every way) steals a book from a rich friend's library shelf because he is bored. Of course, it is the thinnest book he sees. It turns out to be a thesis-like piece about a man who can see without his eyes. Ben Kingsley plays the man in question, and Dev Patel (Dr Chatterjee) and Richard Ayoade (Dr. Marshall) are the doctors who find out about his power. What interests Henry about this man is that he can see through cards that are turned over. Henry likes to gamble, but he's not very good at it. Henry uses a study method created by a cranky yogi to teach himself how to see without eyes. He also stays away from other people for a few years because of his dedication or obsession, call it what you will. Nothing can stop Imdad Khan (Ben Kingsly); he can see right through. It is his turn now to tell the audience about a Great Yogi (Ayouade again) whose powers of concentration are 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 Henry Sugar’s head. Ralph Fiennes character describes Henry Sugar as, “Men like Henry Sugar are to be found drifting like seaweed all over the world. They can be seen especially in London, New York, Paris, Nassau, Montego Bay, Cannes, and San Tropez. They are not particularly bad men, but they are not good men either. They are of no particular importance; they’re simply part of the decoration.”
A friend who also watched the movie and was not impressed by it questioned the narrative structure of the film. “Why is it ‘he said’ and ‘I said’? Why couldn’t the dialogues be normal like any other movie?” she said with exasperation. But I was enjoying the overwhelming, moving, colourful stages and sets and this thought never occurred to me. One can actually see stagehands handing the props to the actors in the movie scenes and Ben Kingsley transforming himself into his younger self by wearing a wig and applying makeup. Also, there is a lot of staring into the camera while the characters are narrating the plot. I guess Anderson did this intentionally to make it interesting for the audience. It did for me. In the end I would like to add if you like Wes Anderson, you will love this short film. I would rate this film 8 out of 10 for the fantastic colours, props, innovative layout and theatre-like quality of every scene.