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Review:  Roald Dahl’s ‘The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar’

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For those who read my Matilda: The Musical review from back in December, you may recall that the works of Roald Dahl were formative in my younger years. I remember being in first or second grade and choosing the box set of his most popular novels as my monthly reward for being an excellent student. Tearing through those books was a nightly ritual for me and my mother, and when I finished them I begged for the rest. The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More wasn’t one of the novels I collected with the rest. 

In fact, I didn’t know it existed until seventh grade, when shopping in a larger bookstore than my local haunt. The illustrations caught my eye first, easily identifying it as a work of the master of my childhood. The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More was vastly different than any of the previous novels or short stories I had read from Dahl. Although the stories were just as intoxicatingly digestible, they felt more grown up in ways I couldn’t identify at the time. Although, having watched Wes Anderson’s short film on Netflix, also titled The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, I definitely do now.

The almost 40-minute film was both written and directed by Anderson, who has previously adapted another of Dahl’s stories, The Fantastic Mr. Fox. His direction and eye worked perfectly for the latter’s adaptation, which he hopes to continue with Henry Sugar. The short film stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Ralph Fiennes, Dev Patel, Ben Kingsley, Rupert Friend, and Richard Ayoade. Continue on to see if this short film should be on your radar!

[Warning: slight spoilers and impressions from The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar are below!]

A story within a story in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar takes a page out of 1001 Arabian Nights, with the use of multiple frame stories, to tell the larger tale. The film begins with Roald Dahl (Fiennes) telling how the story of Henry Sugar came to be. He states that it’s a true story, one told to him for the sole purpose of writing it down and sharing it with others. As he begins, the story utilizes its first frame story, diving into a new world where the titular character is front and center.

Henry Sugar (Benedict Cumberbatch) who is a rich man of his own accord, is bored. Sure he enjoys gambling, which he spends a significant amount of time doing, but at the time we meet him, he’s beyond bored. Stuck in a mansion with people he doesn’t seem interested in being around, Henry decides to look around. It’s then, in a library of books he’s uninterested in, that he finds a small blue book that changes his life.

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar
Henry Sugar (Benedict Cumberbatch). The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (Netflix).

Contained in the book is a collection of notes from a doctor who encounters a patient unlike he has ever seen before in all his years of practicing. Enter the second frameshift, as the short film descends once again in the story of Imdad Khan (Ben Kingsley) and the doctor who studies him. Within this frame, Dr. Chatterjee (Dev Patel) and Dr. Marshall (Richard Ayoade) are approached by Imdad Khan, a man who has an unusual request.

Imdad asks the doctors to blindfold him in any way possible, ensuring he cannot see. Confused, the doctors inquire more, filled with unease with the strange request. The man explains to them that he’s a part of a traveling show, where he showcases his unusual ability. The ability to see without the use of his eyes. The doctors agree to do so but require a deeper explanation of what’s going on, which brings about one more layer to the frame story. 

Imdad’s ability and Henry Sugar’s journey

Imdad shares with the doctors his life journey, from someone who is lost to a man who learns how to see even when his eyes are covered. Through sharing his story, Henry Sugar devises a way to harness these abilities to make himself an even better gambler, building a bigger fortune for himself. Henry spends years developing these abilities, training himself to be better than even Imdad, however, when it comes to enacting his plan, he discovers a hollowness to them. 

What’s the point of such powers if it removes all enjoyment from the act? Can Henry Sugar find meaning again? Or is he doomed to be haunted by his powers from this point on? Watch the film to discover that for yourself.

Positives and negatives of this Wes Anderson/Roald Dahl film

Something that lends itself well to the world of Roald Dahl is the stylistic way Wes Anderson directs all of his projects. Anderson has such a distinct direction with his films, so much so that people can identify it just by a single frame. His use of color is always incredibly vibrant with rich colors and sets that feel insanely storybook. Those colors and the vibes are present in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar but cranked up to eleven. The storybook feel fits in so well with the rich prose that Dahl created. There’s not a story that the author wrote down that feels anything less than otherworldly which makes this pairing with Wes Anderson a match made in heaven.

There are points in the story where the sets are made to look and feel like old-timey sets from the silver age of cinema, a touch that warmed my heart to see. There didn’t seem to be a particular point to them besides the desire to push the narrative of a frame story, but that fact alone elevated the story and helped make excellent use of the short runtime. I’ll be honest, not every Wes Anderson film has given me the feelings that I hear others describe. The one that stands out the closest to those feelings is The Grand Budapest Hotel

However, with The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, I finally get it. The whimsical nature of the short film is developed with what feels like complete ease. Whimsical films aren’t necessarily my favorite type of story either. They usually come off as too strong or odd for my liking. But this one works well and made me want to go back and give some of Anderson’s other films a second shot. I can also recognize that his film might not be for everyone because of the whimsy and that’s okay too. However, those who grow up with Dahl’s works will definitely be excited to watch it.

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar 2
Henry Sugar (Benedict Cumberbatch) and The Policeman (Ralph Fiennes). The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (Netflix).

I thought it was an excellent touch to have Roald Dahl be a character in the film as well, creating another level of depth and a bit of realism to the story of Henry Sugar. It was a neat way to tie the story all together, rather than having a straight adaptation of the short story. Doing so also allowed for the proper use of the frame story, which was an important aspect of the film. Within the frame story, I thought the dual roles for most of the actors were an interesting choice that played out rather well. Because there’s a clear indication of the story that separated one from another, this choice never felt confusing. At least it wouldn’t if you’re paying attention.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Ralph Fiennes were standouts in this film, cementing both of them as some of my favorite actors more so than they already were. Cumberbatch especially is superb as the initially questionable Henry Sugar. He plays the role with such conviction and conflict, adding nuance to a character that could easily be entirely hatable. The development of this one character has over 39 minutes is better than some in full-length films.

However, for the incredible growth and storytelling of characters like Henry Sugar, some feel a bit more wooden for lack of proper time to explore them. Richard Ayoade’s Dr. Marshall is one of these characters. I’ve watched Ayoade before in many projects and know he has comedic chops. I wish there was a bit more time to explore some of these side characters, enriching the world just a step further. I also understand that sacrifices were made for the clarity and direction of the film, so it’s understandable that some characters were reduced to plot devices.

Final thoughts on The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar

Overall, this film is an exceptional piece of work. Being that it’s easily digestible due to a short runtime, it should be at the top of everyone’s To-Watch list. The story, the visuals, and the acting are all of the highest caliber, making it one of the best things I’ve watched all year. This comes highly recommended for a variety of reasons. So if you have a cool forty minutes this weekend, I implore you to check out Henry Sugar and his wonderful story.

My rating for this film

★★★★/ ♥♥♥♥♥

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is available now on Netflix. Will you be checking this out? Let us know on social media @mycosmiccircus or in The Cosmic Circus Discord.

Review: Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical

Matilda the Musical

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Brian Kitson

Working hard to bring you the latest news and thoughtful analysis of all things nerdy!

Brian Kitson has 379 posts and counting. See all posts by Brian Kitson