“Some people, when they have taken too much and have been driven beyond the point of endurance, simply crumble and collapse and give up. Others however, though they are not many, who will for some reason always be unconquerable.“
“The Swan” is a short story by late British author Roald Dahl which was inspired by a newspaper account of real events, which has gotten a fresh lease of life by director Wes Anderson in a 17 minute life action adaptation. This is also the most serious tale among the quartet of short-films made by Anderson on Dahl’s works.
Actor Rupert Friend narrates the tale, which unfolds like a haunting stage-play. Friend rapidly draws viewers into the plight of a young boy named Peter Watson (Asa Jennings), who was simply bird-watching, unaware that he was being watched by a pair of bullies called Ernie and Raymond who are armed with a rifle and out to kill birds. The duo soon approach Peter, ties his hands up and begin to torment him in dangerous ways and the younger boy must rely on his wits to get out of their grip.
Rupert Friend theatrically reports everything unfolding on the screen, even mimicking the dialogues between the younger boys. It’s both slightly creepy and comical to watch an older man nonchalantly describe, verbatim, every little detail of a story about young boys. Just like Dev Patel’s frenzied narration made “Poison” a gripping watch, Rupert Friend helps hold the viewer’s attention in “The Swan” until the end. As soon as Peter’s hands are bound, a sense of unease takes hold, with one’s mind racing through countless scenarios in which the malicious Ernie could inflict harm upon poor Peter. And these feelings persist until the end, or at least they kept me on the edge of my seat for the entire runtime.
Asa Jennings has no dialogue in the film, but his body language and expressions effectively convey Peter’s helplessness and terror in the face of his bullies. As Ernie becomes nastier, Peter’s fear transforms into anger and insolence. This change is reflected through a swift scene transition, where Peter’s blue shorts and sweater are replaced by an all-black outfit. Wes Anderson’s cinematography is, of course, a crucial element, consisting of an interesting mixture of stark colors, movable sets, and a small section with stop-motion animation. However, unlike his short film ‘The Rat Catcher,’ where the animation was clearly demarcated by the presence of a giant rat, viewers might have to pay extra attention to differentiate real props from animated objects in ‘The Swan’. Ralph Fiennes makes the briefest appearance in the tale as Roald Dahl in this short too, as if to remind viewers it’s his story.
As far as thematic explorations are concerned, ‘The Swan’ is the strongest film in the quartet, which delves into the paradoxical natures of children. On one hand, there are the smart, kind, sensitive kids like Peter Watson; on the other hand, there are bullheaded, evil boys like Ernie, who think nothing of torturing those smaller and weaker than them. The film unexpectedly takes a fantasy-like turn towards the climax. Is Peter Watson able to escape his bullies unharmed? We are left with an open-ended and poignant final scene to draw our own conclusions. This short film is whimsical, absurd and leaves you with plenty of food for thought. It’s my favorite from among the four films made by Wes Anderson.
You can stream “The Swan” on Netflix.
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