A dive into Wes Anderson’s new short films: Poison, The Ratcatcher, and The Swan

Photo Credit: Netflix

Everyone’s favourite artsy director has a new offering on Netflix, this time taking a dark twist on a children’s classic.

By Jhanvi Vipin (she/her)

After The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, Wes Anderson brings three more short film adaptations from Roald Dahl’s archive – Poison, The Ratcatcher, and The Swan. All three films have a star-studded cast, are 17 minutes long, and are depicted in the form of a play. Each film was riveting and told in a simple yet sophisticated way. Anderson makes the interesting choice as a renowned filmmaker of adapting short stories into films and portraying each story with a certain refinement but with a final kick to the stomach (in a good way).

The first film I encountered was Poison

The story of Poison is set in India under British rule. Timber Woods (Dev Patel), the narrator, comes home one night to find his friend Harry Pope (Benedict Cumberbatch) lying motionless in bed, sweating in a state of panic. Pope explains to Woods that a venomous krait has crawled and fallen asleep on his stomach underneath the bed covers. He then tells Woods to call a doctor. Woods calls Dr Ganderbai (Ben Kingsley), a local Indian doctor. The pair together try various methods to get the snake off of Harry. Poison starts off as one of those silly tales you might tell a child at night, but ends with a bolt from the blue as Harry’s fear quickly turns into anger, with racial slurs directed at Dr Ganderbai. The film is an eye-opener and shows the perhaps murkier feelings that lie underneath, much like the snake under the covers.

The second film I watched was The Ratcatcher, set in an English village that is having a problem with rats. Hence appears the Rat Man (played by Ralph Fiennes), who also looks much like a rat himself, with big front yellow teeth, a hunched figure and long, discoloured nails. The Rat Man divulges his secrets of rat-catching to a reporter (Richard Ayoade, who is also the narrator) and a mechanic (Rupert Friend). After all, one must be very much like or cleverer than a rat to catch one. This film in particular had some notable, and dare I say it, meme worthy stills. The Rat Man had some slightly revolting dialogue, but the back and forth between the reporter, mechanic and Rat Man was funny. The story is also connected to another one of Dahl’s shorts, Rummins.

The final film is The Swan. It is the story of Peter Watson (played by Rupert Friend and Asa Jennings), a gentle, intelligent, little boy who is tormented by two cruel, larger bullies. This is escalated when the bullies decide to go after a mother swan with their guns. The setting in the film constantly changes through stagehands, from the train tracks, to the beautiful but ultimately ill-fated swan, to the weeping willow tree and other scenery. Ralph Fiennes makes an appearance as Roald Dahl, as he also does in Poison, to ultimately reveal what happens to poor Peter Watson. This is one of the stories where you wonder if the main character finds a way out, and perhaps he does, but in the most heart-wrenching way. It evokes a poignant feeling to which you empathise with the perhaps true swan of the story, Peter Watson himself. 

All in all, Wes Anderson does a wonderful job as a director bringing Roald Dahl’s short stories and Quentin Blake’s illustrations to the screen. The cinematographers Robert Yeoman and Roman Coppola take us to the world of Roald Dahl, and preserve the essence of the stories written. The three films had many recurring themes – the focus on men, their reactions, and the use of animals to mirror the lives or characterisation of the men in the short stories. The world inside is bleak and takes a darker turn, shedding light on iniquity but also the contrast with gentleness (as with Dr Ganderbai in Poison and Peter Watson in The Swan). While there is violence in the stories, there is no depiction of it in the film, which I thought was a very profound choice. The Swan is my personal favourite out of the three, but Poison and The Ratcatcher are just as commendable. 

All three films are currently streaming on Netflix.