Wonderful by name, wonderful by nature. Wes Anderson’s 39-minute adaptation of Roald Dahl’s homonymous story is a truly gorgeous creation. Those in the anti-Anderson camp – and I get why he can rub viewers up the wrong way – or those who have tired of his oeuvre will surely be (newly) converted. That’s because the film manages to contain many of the director’s trademark tropes but at such a breathless pace, and in such a brief timespan, that it doesn’t have time to pall. Look away from the screen for an instant and you risk missing some charming detail or hilarious trick.
Anderson starts the film of Dahl’s short story – which is actually a story within a story – with the author himself (played by Ralph Fiennes) introducing his tale from the writing hut in the garden of his Buckinghamshire home, Gipsy House. Anderson creates a pretty realistic replica, and it is suddenly clear just what good a fit the writer and the filmmaker are. Incredible invention, keen intelligence, good humour and a light dusting of darkness are just a few of the traits the two men share.
Boxed into the hut, the cramped space (emphasised by the square aspect ratio Anderson’s film uses) Dahl sets the scene. This suits a film that is like a set of Chinese boxes, with each one opening up to offer another series of delights. Yet there is also a strong element of puppet theatre, the sets collapsing to reveal new hand-painted scenery.
Dahl leads us into the story of Henry Sugar (Benedict Cumberbatch), a spoilt wealthy man who has never had to work and who leads a superficial life. As Dahl notes, these men can “be found drifting like seaweed all over the world… They are not particularly bad men. But they are not good men either.”
At a friend’s home one rainy afternoon, Henry finds himself in his host’s library and there he finds a notebook detailing the story of a man, Imdad Khan (Ben Kingsley), who can see without using his eyes, recounted by Dr Chaterjee, the doctor who met him (Dev Patel) in Bombay General Hospital. The good doctor has a colleague, Dr Marshall (Richard Ayoade), who also witnesses Khan’s astounding skill. And when Khan’s secret is revealed in the notebook, Henry decides to train himself in order to achieve the same ability. For the first time in his life, the dissolute lay-about sets himself to work. Whether he succeeds or not, and what the unexpected twist in the tale is, is for the viewer to discover in this hugely entertaining film.
Each cast member is a joy to watch, with more than one of them playing multiple roles. Costumes are changed, wigs removed and moustaches attached before our delighted eyes. Crew members occasionally appear on the screen, adjusting one of the many ingenious sets. Minute details appear momentarily above the performer’s head and the story is told at a rollicking pace.
For anyone who loved being read to as a child, or who was taken to the theatre for a children’s show, for those of us old enough to remember Jackanory, and for all who love being told an entertaining yarn brought vividly to life, this is the film for you. This is a story that will become a classic, a family tradition, a film to play every Christmas that adults and kids will love.
Wes Anderson appears to have found his ideal mate in Roald Dahl. With further tales in the pipeline, here’s hoping the following chapters are as wonderful as this.