LONDON: Given the critical success of “Fantastic Mr. Fox” in 2009, it is something of a surprise that it has taken so many years for Wes Anderson to return to the works of Roald Dahl.
Now, lo and behold, four adaptations have come along at once, with a quartet of Anderson-directed short films for Netflix — also including “The Swan,” “The Rat Catcher” and “Poison” — released at daily intervals this week.
Anderson has assembled an fine troupe of actors, many of whom appear across the four stories, and first turns his inimitable, behind-the-curtain style to “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar.”
As perhaps only Anderson could, the director leans into the multi-layered storytelling, including a narrator (Dahl himself, played by Ralph Fiennes) and a procession of deadpan, to-camera monologues from his cast, which includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Ben Kingsley, Dev Patel, Rupert Friend and Richard Ayoade.
Bored, greedy bachelor Henry Sugar (Cumberbatch) stumbles across the story of Imdad Khan (Kingsley), a circus performer who taught himself to see with his eyes closed. Sniffing an opportunity for limitless profit, Sugar tries to develop the same power so that he can make a killing in the world’s casinos.
Because it is a Wes Anderson film, the audience is invited to share in every aspect of the storytelling — whether it is the actors taking on multiple roles, the visible stagehands, the off-screen noises or the occasional glimpses beyond the sets, there is a decidedly theater-like aesthetic at play.
For Anderson, the telling of the story is, in fact, part of that story — and the relationship between author, narrator, actors and audience shifts and pirouettes throughout the 39 minutes.
“Henry Sugar” is one of Dahl’s more upbeat tales, removed from the naivety of the writer’s children’s stories and perhaps lacking some of the more macabre leanings of his adult work.
The cast certainly commits, all throwing themselves into the straightlaced performances. Although it makes for an odd experience — all lavish worldbuilding juxtaposed with starkly functional acting — it somehow works.
Much like Dahl himself, there is an eccentricity about Anderson’s style that makes his films captivating, and the prospect of more work to come an intriguing one.