Director: Wes Anderson
Writer: Wes Anderson
Cast: Rupert Friend, Ralph Fiennes
Duration: 17 mins
Available on: Netflix
One of the reasons Roald Dahl’s fiction has been such a favourite of children across generations and geographies is that he recognised the world is a wretched place, filled with horrible people, and redeemed it using fantasy. Enter frobscottle, witches, giant peaches, talking foxes, snozzcumbers and other wonders, all of which helped to transform the awful into the absurd while acknowledging both the inhumanity and the grace that is particular to humanity. Dahl is less forgiving in his fiction for grown-ups, which is venomously cynical and wickedly bitter. The Swan, even though it’s about three boys, is an excellent example of Dahl’s adult fiction. The story about the extraordinary cruelty of two bullies is a difficult read. Its relentless viciousness feels difficult to digest and impossible to reconcile as real, and the Big Friendly Giant feels more credible than Ernie and Raymond, the two teenage boys who decide, for no reason, that they’re going to make little Peter Watson’s life hell.
The Swan opens with Rupert Friend, of the bluer-than-blue eyes, standing on a path lined with giant, overgrown, but dry hedges. There’s a sign sticking out that reads “Public Footpath”. Anderson’s worlds are never rooted in realism, but this one immediately feels like something from a dream. As Friend narrates the story, looking straight into the camera, he walks briskly, taking us deeper into this landscape of memory. Doors appear and open out of these hedges; boys in peaked caps dart in and out, shifting props; Friend does the voices for Ernie, who has been gifted a gun, and Raymond, his sidekick. Peter, who is to be the victim of their bullying, is first introduced to us by a photograph that Friend pulls out of his pocket. The boy himself appears a little later, glasses on his face and binoculars dangling from his neck.
Even though all the calculated movements have a whiff of comedy about them, there’s also a sense of jarring awkwardness to The Swan. When Friend talks about Ernie and Raymond having shot all the little birds they’ve seen on their way, and a young boy pops out of the hedge with a string of patently fake birds dangling from it, there’s a sense of relief that this is all make-believe. And yet the artifice of the prop also brings home the fact these are standing in for something real.
If you didn’t guess that Friend is Peter all grown up, the actor helpfully tells you as much a little later when Peter is trussed up by Ernie and Raymond and made to lie down on rail tracks. It should come as a comfort that if there’s a grown-up Peter, then as a boy, he must have survived this terrible bullying, but the calm tone with which Friend details how Peter figured out how to save himself while lying on the tracks is anything but comforting.
The first hint that Anderson is going to complicate Dahl’s story about two bullies and their victim is when you realise Ernie, the gun-toting lout, wears glasses — just like Peter. Dahl’s story describes Ernie as, “a big lout of a boy, fifteen years old this birthday. Like his truck-driver father, he had small, slitty eyes set very close together near the top of the nose. His mouth was loose, the lips often wet. Brought up in a household where physical violence was an everyday occurrence, he was himself an extremely violent person.” In contrast, Peter has “a small, frail body. His face was freckled, and he wore spectacles with thick lenses. He was a brilliant pupil, already in the senior class at school although he was only thirteen. He loved music and played the piano well. He was no good at games. He was quiet and polite. His clothes, although patched and darned, were always clean. And his father did not drive a truck or work in a factory. He worked at the bank.”
While villainising the working class in order to glorify the middle class, Dahl also emphasised the differences between the two boys. One is starkly unlike the other. Anderson does the opposite. He adds similarities. It begins with Friend effectively embodying the bullies when he gives voice to them. Then there are the glasses that both Peter and Ernie wear. Later, after a moment when little Peter suffers a terrible heartbreak because of Ernie’s casual violence, the smaller boy slips out of the scene and returns in a new costume. Now he’s wearing black. His clear glasses are replaced by a pair that have blackened lenses. He's been changed by his experience.
Through Friend and little Peter — who, like the other non-speaking actors in this film are sadly not named in the credits — Anderson subtly suggests that violence transforms people and it’s possible for one person to be both bully and victim. At one point towards the end of the film, Friend is seen standing next to the gun-toting Ernie, rather than alongside Peter, who is in grave danger. In the retelling of this story, staged in the memory palace of Peter’s dreams, his grown-up self is an accomplice in the violence done to the innocent goodness and wisdom that Peter embodies.
The swan as a bird has fascinated poets and mystics across the world. In the ancient Greek myths, it was associated with Apollo, god of poetry, and is famously the creature that Zeus transformed himself into when he raped Leda (which is as good evidence as any that these birds have been cantankerous and scary for centuries). English poets, like Percy Bysshe Shelley, have often imagined swans as exiles from their homelands. Tales of shapeshifting swan-princes and swan-princes were popular in the Middle Ages and the phrase “swan song” continues to mean the last work by an artist. In Dahl’s story, the swan takes on something of this magical aura, drawing on centuries of mythmaking. From the sharp and deliberate cut that Anderson introduces towards the end of the short film, it seems Anderson is less persuaded by such stories.
In Anderson's film, the bullies find their target and the director cuts abruptly to Ralph Fiennes as Roald Dahl — introduced to us in the The Wonderful World of Henry Sugar — who speaks to the camera, concluding this tale with all the silver-tongued charm of a bard trying to find for his listener some sort of happy ending. (Both Friend and Fiennes’s voice acting is a masterclass in how to make a calm and steady tone shimmer with repressed emotion.) Anderson, for all the fantasy worlds he creates with meticulous care, chooses instead to end on a note that is equal parts pain and hope, undercutting Dahl's words with the imagery that shows both the grown-up and young Peter, wearing the swan wings that are a horrific reminder of the bullying Peter suffered.
The real kicker of The Swan is in the text plate that Anderson ends his film with, which informs the viewer that the incidents in the short story actually happened. All the artifice that we've seen is rooted in reality, in things that real people did to one another. It took Dahl 30 years to be able to process that horrific incident into fiction and he chose to soften the blow by adding some escapism. Anderson also turns to something magical — the craft and artifice of his very distinctive filmmaking — not to look away from reality, but to examine it. Through the prism of its singular narrator who turns into many characters, Anderson's The Swan leaves you thinking about the very real consequences of violence and lost innocence.