Levitation is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Unfortunately, few know where the book actually is. Therefore, as Wes Anderson takes on Roald Dahl’s fanciful stories, he does so in the elaborate manner of a conjuror forever rolling up his sleeves to show us his hands. In his slavishly loyal adaptation of The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar, the stage is set for an old meditating yogi to rise off the ground, and Anderson demonstrates this feat by having him position an elaborately painted box which, from the right angle, nearly blends in with the background, and sit cross-legged on it.
The effect is, paradoxically, both magical—it is gorgeous enough to gasp at—as well as the exact opposite, Anderson drawing back the curtain to demystify his own trick. Anderson has adapted Dahl before in the 2006 stop-motion marvel Fantastic Mr Fox (streaming on Mubi), and with four new short films on Netflix—The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar, The Swan, Poison and The Ratcatcher —he appears keen to literally deconstruct storytelling itself, adapting Dahl’s sentences to the comma while building magical and intricate dioramas to express them. One conjuror is letting us into the world of another.
It begins with Ralph Fiennes—unforgettable in Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (Disney+ Hotstar)—sharpening his pencils. Playing Dahl himself, he echoes the author’s needs from a famous old interview. He looks around and lists his daily writing requirements. “Cigarettes, of course. Some coffee, chocolates. And always make sure I have a sharp pencil before I start.” Then, he commences. The magic is afoot. Are you watching closely?
We are then plunged headlong into the fascinating—and, given Dahl’s staggeringly popular oeuvre, underrated—story of Henry Sugar, a vain and wealthy protagonist out to amass more wealth. Played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Sugar is a contemptible sort of man who enters a library with little regard for its contents, the sort of man who pulls a volume from a shelf based only on its slimness, and yet the sort of man who finds himself festooned with miracles. For that very volume opens his eyes to an impossibly unique medical adventure, one that changes his life.
It takes Sugar—and us—to a Calcutta hospital in 1933 where Dr Chatterjee (Dev Patel) is baffled by an old performer, Imdad Khan (Ben Kingsley), who can see without using his eyes. “Even the doctors who blindfold me in the most expert way,” Khan tells the doctor, while being blindfolded expertly, “refuse to believe that anyone can see without his eyes. They forget there may be other ways of sending the image to the brain.” Chatterjee clings to Khan’s every word, as does Anderson. This is now a story within a story within a story, at one point five times removed, as Dahl and his varied narrators fluidly swap the storytelling baton. I won’t tell you what happens—magic loses much in hurried translation—but visually this 37-minute film refuses to let go as backgrounds and worlds slide and shift and enchant. At one point, a cheetah casually lopes about.
Henry Sugar is the best of the four films, but the three other shorts—thematically darker stories of racism, bullying and venom—all dutifully keep rolling sleeves up to show the viewer just where in the hat the rabbit is hidden. In The Ratcatcher, for instance, we clearly see Rupert Friend take and wear a set of false teeth offered by a stagehand before a so-called dramatic reveal shows him with rat-like teeth.
This is an intricate and highly unique storytelling style that celebrates the author’s words but there appear—at times—to be too many words (including many an individual “he said” from Dahl’s text) and concentrating on the prose and the visuals gets slippery. It’s easy to get caught up in the visuals and miss some words, or vice versa, much as it would be to listen to an audiobook while watching a movie at the same time. Yet, to borrow a line from The Ratcatcher, there is “an awful sort of magnetism to this business”, and it’s impossible to look away.
Poison is the darkest, most tense of the films, where Patel proves himself as perhaps a quintessentially perfect Wes Anderson narrator. Anderson clearly loves Dahl and enjoys fetishising the author’s wondrous phrases, and Patel—who was magnificent in Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History Of David Copperfield (Amazon Prime Video)—is the ideal person to speak about characters who sound like they are “gargling with melted butter”.
All the actors trade roles as if on stage, and Cumberbatch seems visibly galvanised by this process. I daresay he hasn’t had this kind of fun since Sherlock. Kingsley, of course, is the best choice to play both a Bengali doctor and a baccarat dealer at a high-end London casino, and the veteran remains game for anything. Richard Ayoade predictably suits the roles of a frightened newspaperman and a stunned doctor, but also does well as an all-knowing (yet irritable) yogi. Friend performs well but isn’t the most enthralling narrator, and this somewhat lets down The Swan, which — given that he’s the least well-known among Anderson’s cast — makes me wonder how important familiarity is to the director’s storytelling.
These four films are a feat. If anything, Anderson manages to be almost too loyal to Dahl’s work, while also crafting something truly original. Could we have even more, Mr Anderson? Maybe a big feature film, an all-star Roald-and-Wes extravaganza? I may never get over Meryl Streep indignantly saying “Am I being flirted with by a psychotic rat?” in Fantastic Mr Fox, and Anderson, whose work is often compared to confectionery, would surely make the definitive Charlie And The Chocolate Factory.
Yet there are many directors who can make great big films. Prestidigitation is a different game. It takes a whole other kind of storyteller to conjure up true razzle-dazzle. Wes Anderson visually mesmerises us, but his intent is ironic. These gorgeous films are a reminder of how far stories can let us see—without using our eyes.
One of Roald Dahl’s most unlikely collaborators was Ian Fleming, as Dahl wrote the screenplay adapting Fleming’s scrumptious Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Fleming is, of course, better known for creating a certain British spy, and the entire James Bond catalogue — from Dr No to SPECTRE — is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
Raja Sen is a screenwriter and critic. He has co-written Chup, a film about killing critics, and is now creating an absurd comedy series. He posts @rajasen.