Poison: Ending Explained (In Detail)

What happens to the Krait sitting atop Harry Pope in the Wes Anderson short film? And why does Ralph Fiennes keep popping up?
Poison: Ending Explained (In Detail)

Soon after Asteroid City (2023) made its worldwide debut, Wes Anderson put out his first short film in over a decade: The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar was followed by The Swan, The Rat Catcher, and Poison on successive days, every single one an adaptation of a short story by famed British writer Roald Dahl. The former secured the 2024 Academy Award for Best Short Film, Anderson’s first golden statuette in over thirty years of helming films. The four shorts were recently released as The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Three More on Netflix.

Poison is based on a story Dahl published in 1950, and has been adapted thrice before: for radio in 1950, and twice for television — the first instance being an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents directed by the master himself in 1958, and the second as an episode of Tales of the Unexpected in 1980. Anderson’s iteration stars Benedict Cumberbatch as the beleaguered Harry Pope who has a Krait on his person, Dev Patel as the narrator Woods, and Ben Kingsley as Dr. Ganderbai who attempts to help Pope. There is also Ralph Fiennes in a curious but rather special cameo.

The Situation

Set in British India, the film opens in characteristic Wes Anderson style, with formal framing, sharp linear cuts, and quirky staging, with Woods (Patel) narrating the sequence of events as they unfold. 

It is quickly established that Harry Pope (Cumberbatch) is a burra sahib of some kind, running a jute plantation in India, which is not mentioned overtly as much as it is alluded to through Patel and Kingsley’s very existence in the film, as well as the production design (by Adam Stockhausen), with the ceiling fans, brick red terracotta-clay roof tiles, and very typical bungalow verandah.

Woods arrives at the bungalow where Pope is lying stock still on a metal bed, perspiring but not moving a hair. Woods hastily judges the situation to be one of malarial infection, whose signs Pope appears to exhibit. He is disabused of the notion by Pope himself, who asserts, through gritted teeth and barely-functional facial muscles, that his posture is courtesy of a Bengal Krait which has made Pope’s person its resting place for the evening.

Woods initially suggests taking a look at the reptile, an idea Pope shoots down, preferring the professional expertise of a doctor, whom Woods hastens to call. Dr. Ganderbai (Kingsley), who coincidentally wears a Gandhi topi, is getting ready to call it a night but rushes over to take a look at Pope.

The Solution

Ganderbai’s first instinct upon arrival is to calm Woods down, which he does by telling the younger man to let him carry out a preliminary examination by himself. That concluded, he convenes with Woods and decides to inject Pope with a serum that will keep the poison at bay should the Krait strike.

Brow covered in a sheen of perspiration and a supine Pope close at hand, Ganderbai carefully carries out his job, but is not convinced that it would have been enough to counter the venom of the Krait. He suggests a backup: That the cold-blooded reptile be the recipient of anaesthetic. Except the chances of successfully injecting a venomous snake are next to nill. Ganderbai slowly but judiciously soaks Pope’s mattress with chloroform in the hope that it’ll take care of the snake. The sheets are then pulled back to reveal Pope’s frozen lower half with not even the “K” of “Krait” in sight. 

At this moment, Anderson abandons his curated, mechanical camera movement: Pope springs up on the bed and jumps about, the camera imitating his movements as though suggesting a shake-up of things from the carefully put-together life of Pope and his ilk.

When Ganderbai dares to question the existence of the Krait, Pope loses his shirt, racially abusing the Indian-origin doctor, calling him all sorts of unprintable things in reference to his community and caste. Woods keeps butting in to shut Pope up but the Englishman only does so when the doctor loses his cool and leaves.

The film ends with Woods attempting to placate Ganderbai as he leaves, only to be told that he cannot be the one apologising.

The Poison in Poison and Other Readings

The title reveals itself quite clearly through Pope’s conduct, the suggestion being that the venom that resides within his indoctrinated being is far more dangerous than anything a Krait could deliver. Pope’s racial superiority can also be viewed in light of Dahl’s World War II service, when he flew fighter planes against a country that deemed itself the Master Race.

Everything in Pope’s conduct, from how he speaks to Woods and Ganderbai to his demeanour, initially suggests an Englishman of the stiff upper-lip variety only to reveal a bargain basement racist and xenophobe at the end. 

Woods, who is shown to be Pope’s subordinate (though he addresses the man by his Christian name), apologises to Dr. Ganderbai on his behalf but the doctor rejects this gesture, firmly asserting that rather than use their Indian subordinates as crutches and couriers, Englishmen will have to apologise for their conduct themselves, a sign of things to come as the sun begins to set on the British Empire.

Twice in the film, Anderson cuts to a study where an ageing, bespectacled man sits and narrates parts of the story to the camera. It’s Roald Dahl himself, played by Fiennes, enthroned on the writer’s famous armchair and surrounded by accoutrements that admirers of his work will recognise quite readily. Dahl merely reads out lines from the story, albeit without the emotional inflexions of Woods. This also suggests a directness to the approach Anderson wants to take, as though he’d rather not be misinterpreted; any ambiguity is essentially removed through Dahl’s interjections.

There remains an interesting thought that Poison’s casting leaves behind: For a film talking about racism, particularly what Indians faced from the British in their own country, the film doesn’t have Indian actors playing the roles. Though the story doesn’t clarify Woods’ origin, Patel’s casting appears to be deliberate. Yet neither he nor Kingsley, famous for playing the Father of the Nation in Gandhi (Richard Attenborough, 1982), are actually Indian.

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