Wes Anderson continues to evolve his style and push the boundaries of cinema in his new short movies on Netflix
On the vast Netflix platform, we have the uniqueness of Wes Anderson’s latest offering to his by now, huge audience. It is a trip into the world of Roald Dahl’s short stories, combined with Anderson’s cautious and beautiful aesthetics. A quartet of short films, each a brief yet immersive exploration of the whimsical and thought-provoking short stories with underlying themes of justice, history and cruelty. Ranging from seventeen to thirty-nine minutes, these short films are a testament to Anderson’s unique and unmistakable cinematic approach, drawing comparisons to luminaries like Jean-Luc Godard and Abbas Kiarostami by the New Yorker’s film critic Richard Brody. Dahl has long been an influence for Wes Anderson, the literary source for his feature length 2009 film The Fantastic Mr. Fox and now a crucial lens through which to view Anderson’s creative evolution.
Anderson’s signature meticulousness and love of symmetry is evident in the carefully measured designs, knowing performances, and asides to the camera. Weaving political implications within the precision of the narratives, the director takes storytelling literally, framing the tales as one would a theatrical production. All four films feature characters narrating their stories directly to the camera within a staged setting. In The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar Benedict Cumberbatch moves amidst shifting walls, maintaining eye contact with the camera, blurring the lines between reality and fiction. This technique is further emphasised in The Swan, where a makeup artist applies fake blood to a character in plain view. Unapologetically exposing the artifice with props and visible stage walls, Anderson invites the audience to transcend the drama and engage with the narrative on a unique level with his refined artistry. He manages to keep us extremely engaged while simultaneously pulling us outside of that drama. The theatrical dedication is impressive and consuming, with such an investment in visuals; a wonderfully refreshing piece of work to see while browsing.
The quartet delves into themes of justice, history, and discrimination, with The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar serving as a profound exploration of spiritual ideologies. Each film addresses unique aspects, from the sadism and violence in The Rat Catcher to the survival narrative against bullying in The Swan which intriguingly hints at historical undertones in the Holocaust, with barbed wire and a bland suburban background. Poison explores colonial racism in a story that turns poisonous as quickly as a snake’s bite. The story of a British man, an Indian doctor and a knife edge crisis plays with vulnerabilities, control and violence another layer to the quartet’s thematic richness.
With all this beauty, we question the structure of the narrative itself. It seems that Anderson is savouring words, with a breathless delivery from specific actors in each short film; however, does this give justice to literature and the short story form, or undermine it by translating it into a carefully crafted short movie with a distinctive aesthetic? Anderson intelligently subverts our traditional expectations by making the actors recite Dahl’s stories almost verbatim, honouring the short stories as a completed form, with a witty portrayal of Dahl by Ralph Fiennes. This is alongside a versatile cast including Dev Patel, Rupert Fiend, Ben Kingsley, and Benedict Cumberbatch, who all successfully add depth and nuance to each narrative.
Among the quartet, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar stands out as the most complete with its compelling story, encompassing the span of a life, and exceptional acting by Cumberbatch. There were moments, like a pause in a delicious meal, when I wondered if it wasn’t all too sweet, too perfect and delicious. This familiar two-dimensional symmetry is a reassuring fantasy, a fairy-like world, in which Anderson has become a hallmark for. His artistic talent has created an identity for itself, one which we could recognize from the advertising itself. One could say this has been overdone by Anderson, that we are overexposed to his aesthetic, and losing an emotional depth that he perfectly encapsulated in Rushmore.
However, I remembered how hard it is to see the author, the artist in most of what is served up on Netflix, and what dross might be waiting when I reached the end, and Netflix suggested what might be next up.