Ever the inevitable charmer, before The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is even on screen, it is easy to tell what will likely unfold. Wes Anderson is still not a pastiche of himself, that much is clear. He still has enough turning away behind and in front of the camera to avoid repetition. A slightly darker, grainy theme presents itself in the opening moments of an aged Roald Dahl (Ralph Fiennes), brushing away at his works. An awful man but a great storyteller, the irony is not lost in isolation, and nor is the attention to detail. Anderson enjoys a bit of a budget flex with this one, the revolving door of sets crashing into place, growing bigger and smaller, angled to perfection, as expected.
With more of his works featuring pieces to camera, it should be no surprise The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, as short as it is, feels like an experiment with to-camera storytelling. Most, if not all, the important bits of dialogue, are delivered unflinchingly down the barrel of the camera. Where else would they go? Staring down the barrel feels so natural to Anderson and his craft. Those vacant moments of distance in the eyes of the performer, an intoxicating fear maintained well throughout The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. Excess is pure when done to this level. Explanation after explanation of character interaction, Anderson turns the “show, don’t tell” ideals on its head and proves with the right knack and cast, it is possible to tell and barely show.
Long, long pauses provide some time to take in a scene. It works for the pace as Dev Patel, Richard Ayoade and Ben Kingsley are introduced. A tad stilted though, and the faster pace meeting with the shorter storytelling style is a rough change of pace. Little nudges and glares to the camera feel Dahl-like in presentation. Compact and light enough to work but still the core is missing. The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar maintains a consistency of quality, but much of this comes from the spot-checks of seeing the likes of Jarvis Cocker make their way onto the big screen once more. It pales in comparison to other, artsy shorts Anderson has put out in the past, but his Netflix debut is a delicate affair which is not meant to push the envelope all that far. Where it can, though, it engages with a raw style and develops talent as best it can.
All the cute stylings but with card trickery and stories in stories, the Anderson classic. His collection of apéritif-like short stories fits the Dahl adaptations nicely, as do Ralph Fiennes and Dev Patel. Their inclusions are the clunky gears which bring out caricature-like performances, though are pushed on that little bit further. Fiennes may use the same rage which gave Gustave H. his dues in The Grand Budapest Hotel, but those flashy moments which throw viewers back almost a decade ago are well worth it. Showy set design and the flex of a Netflix budget certainly help The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar along somewhat.