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July 2024


Art in Miniature
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar
Strange Way of Life


Miles David Moore


Two of the most renowned living directors surprised their fans in the past year by releasing short films.  Both films, which are now streaming on Netflix, are masterful, and each may rightfully be considered a distillation of its maker’s style and artistic concerns.

Clocking in at forty-one minutes, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is Wes Anderson’s second adaptation of a Roald Dahl story, after his stop-action animation The Fantastic Mr. Fox.  It begins in the writer’s hut at Gipsy House, Dahl’s estate in Buckinghamshire, as Dahl (Ralph Fiennes) cleans his writing board, sharpens his pencils, and assembles the coffee, cigarettes, and chocolates he needs as aids to writing.  Then, he starts telling the story of Henry Sugar—a pseudonym forced on him by the protagonist’s family, he explains.

Henry Sugar (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a wealthy nonentity.  “Men like Henry Sugar are found to be drifting like seaweed all over the world,” Dahl tells us.  “They are not particularly bad men, but they are not good men either.  They are simply part of the decoration.”  Henry has one passion: gambling.  One rainy afternoon at a friend’s country estate, a bored Henry rummages through his host’s massive library.  He discovers a report by Dr. Chatterjee (Dev Patel), a physician in Kolkata who wrote of his encounter with Imdad Khan (Ben Kingsley), a music hall performer who claimed he could see without using his eyes.  After various experiments, Dr. Chatterjee realized that Imdad told the truth.


Imdad told Dr. Chatterjee of his meeting with The Great Yogi (Richard Ayoade), who revealed to him the mental exercises necessary to achieve eyeless sight.  Dr. Chatterjee recorded the exercises in detail, which intrigues Henry—not least because one of the experiments was reading the faces of playing cards from the back.  If he can train himself to do that, he thinks, he can make millions at blackjack. (Men like Henry Sugar, Dahl reminds us, are never so rich that they don’t want more.)

Those with even slight knowledge of Dahl’s work will suspect at this point that Henry will come to a bad end.  The film even provides a bad end for him—and then rejects it for something more imaginative and more delightful.  The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is, in fact, delightful in every way.  The trademark artificiality of Anderson’s style is apotheosized here, with stagehands changing the brightly painted backdrops that look, appropriately, like illustrations in a children’s book.  Robert D. Yeoman and Adam Stockhausen, Anderson’s usual cinematographer and production designer, make the colors and images swirl kaleidoscopically. 

The actors enter totally into the spirit of the story. Always facing the audience, they deliver their monologues (for there is little in the script that can be considered dialogue) in a crisp, rapid flow resembling a non-musical version of a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song.  This is all the better to convey Anderson’s, and Dahl’s, message in Henry Sugar, which is worldly-wise yet optimistic, joyous but not childish. Anderson and Dahl show us that even selfish people doing selfish things can experience a moment of enlightenment that will change their lives, and the world, forever. 

Almodovar’s Strange Way of Life, a gritty and ostensibly traditional Western, is far removed from the enchantment of The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar.  It is equally far removed from the pessimism of the most famous gay Western, Brokeback Mountain.  Given both its brevity and its high production quality, the thirty-one-minute Strange Way of Life resembles the best episode of Death Valley Days ever made—although it’s a hoot imagining how Ronald Reagan would have introduced it.


Almodovar begins Strange Way of Life in a way familiar to Western fans: Silva (Pedro Pascal) rides his horse across the desert to the tune of a sultry contralto voice singing in Spanish.  The familiarity ends within seconds when we see the singer: a willowy young countertenor (Manu Rios) with a day’s growth of beard, strumming his guitar.

In town, Sheriff Jake (Ethan Hawke) is choosing a coffin for the recently murdered widow of his brother and planning the capture of her suspected murderer.  Silva walks into his office.  He and Jake are obviously happy to see each other.  They share a meal and a bottle of wine; the film cuts to the next morning, with Jake in the bathtub and Silva lying bare-buttocked in Jake’s bed. 

Jake and Silva’s conversation, so friendly the night before, quickly turns heated.  It turns out that Silva’s outlaw son Joe (George Steane) is the suspect in the murder.  Silva wants Jake to let Joe escape, but even more he wants to resume the love affair he and Jake had twenty-five years before, when they were gunslingers together.

Jake likes his respectable new life as a sheriff, and he wants to honor his promise to his dead brother to do right by his widow. He is not receptive to either of Silva’s propositions, and in a rage he draws his gun.

“How will you explain this?” Silva asks. “A half-undressed man in your bedroom, still smelling of cum?”


With the aid of his usual cinematographer and composer, Jose Luis Alcaine and Alberto Iglesias, Almodovar once again uses traditional Hollywood tropes only to upend them.  Ethan Hawke and Pedro Pascal are believably hard-bitten as Jake and Silva, and, even more, they make a sexy couple.

In using the Western genre, Almodovar goes Ang Lee one better, creating an ending for Jake and Silva that less resembles Brokeback Mountain than Todd Haynes’ Carol or even James Ivory’s Maurice.  In Strange Way of Life, there is at least a chance for happiness. 


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Miles David Moore is a retired Washington, D.C. reporter for Crain Communications, the author of three books of poetry and Scene4’s Film Critic. For more of his reviews and articles, check the Archives.

©2024 Miles David Moore
©2024 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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