In the last short Wes Anderson’s Roald Dahl anthology, everything comes together excellently. The overall style is akin to the rest — a theatrical approach to production design and the story told through monologue. In Poison, the cast from Henry Sugar return — some of which appeared in the middle two shorts, also. This overlapping of cast ties the shorts together as a unified expression, adds to the theatricality and demonstrates the range of the chosen players. In Poison, the casting works the best, allowing each member to shine.
This time, Dev Patel takes the lead (functioning as our narrator). His performance is truly exceptional, the Wes Anderson inspired The Personal History of David Copperfield (2020) gave us a taste of how well Patel could fit, theoretically, among an Anderson ensemble. He has charm and charisma, a lightness to his performance that allows him to best balance the transitions between direct storytelling (speaking to the audience, often staring down the lens) while also performing in character. He is able to continue character through both, while presenting a diverging style that differentiates the perspectives. It is also important to point out how verbose the monologue is, a veritable collection of fast-paced tongue-twisting phrases that has to be delivered at a pace that matches the growing tension of the short. The words sparkle in Patel’s mouth, making the affected feel natural and spontaneous while still making the most of the carefully curated wording. Even the breath control is impressive: this short rests on his narration and more than delivers.
There is a darker tone than you’d usually get from Anderson, here. Though not the same dark approach as in The Swan or The Rat Catcher. The ensembles of each were part of tone control, and made the overall collection cohere. Though, when taken all together, Henry Sugar does feel like an atmospheric outlier — it also perhaps does the least though has a runtime twice the length of the other shorts. The feel here is one of absolute tension, we arrive at a location with Dev Patel and learn that Benedict Cumberbatch’s colonial officer (this being a period piece that is fundamentally about (and critical of) British imperialism) has a snake on him. He has to lie still or the lethal snake will bite, it could bite at any minute. Cumberbatch is immobile and it is up to Dev Patel — and Ben Kingsley playing an arriving doctor — to solve the situation. A metaphor here comes apparent later, as does the real meaning of the title. The short is so good at creating a riveting tension that doesn’t allow you to properly reflect until it spectacularly breaks. The ending is perhaps an overly slight (perhaps even trite) treatment of something very serious but it is incredibly effective (though this may not be true for those more directly affected by the issues this piece takes on).
Where the craft of the other shorts was deeply impressive, it was not always additive to the best elements of each narrative. Here, every Anderson decision works wonders. We remain locked to a location — even when we have to present somewhere else (via a telephone call), that second location is built onto the previous set. The camera mostly adopts a theatrical fourth wall position, panning left and right as it passes through walls and allows the action to take place in a confined space. This contained effect is also gained through overhead shots, kept stylistically consistent by Patel now glancing up at the camera. This pseudo-Brechtian device works the best here, as it is involving rather than distancing. We feel contained in the frame, the urgency of the narrative made to include us. This is aided by how helpless the scenario seems to be, we are another point that can’t do anything and the growing risk becomes more palpable.
It all builds to a stylistic crescendo also, an earned destabilising move that also speaks to how the viewer’s perspective has become key to the narrative. Everything just works so well this time, a wonderfully expressed narrative that is all involving until it is very purposefully not. Every element is just magnetic, the propulsive camera work and the mesmeric central performance being these grounding elements that necessitate rapt attention. Where so many feature-length filmmakers can struggle with the constraints of the short, overcomplicating it or presenting something that just feels like a chapter from a larger story, Poison is a great example of how to use this specific medium. The constrained space of the shot becomes part of the film’s core identity, a wonderful mirroring of form and content.