The Swan (2023) Review

By Jonathon Wilson
Published: September 30, 2023
The Swan (2023) Review


The Swan is a dark tale of bullying and trauma that is also possessed of an odd beauty thanks to the combined skills of Wes Anderson and Roald Dahl.

The Swan is the second of four Wes Anderson short films adapted for Netflix from the back catalog of Roald Dahl, which the streamer paid a pretty penny for. At a mere 17 minutes, the film is a brief but powerful exploration of bullying and resiliency that leans more into Dahl’s prose than it does Anderson’s sometimes grating filmmaking style – though it does preserve his iconic, pristine aesthetic.

There’s a darker quality to The Swan than was present in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, though it does retain some of that short’s cast and quirks. Ralph Fiennes once again plays Dahl, who pops up now and again from Gipsy House, but the bulk of the acting responsibilities here fall to former Anderson collaborator with The French Dispatch, Rupert Friend, who plays the narrator and an older version of the protagonist.

READ: The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar Ending Explained

The Swan (2023) review and plot summary

That protagonist is Peter Watson, a soft, sweet young boy who loves to birdwatch but falls foul of the local bullies, Raymond and Ernie, when the latter is gifted a rifle for his birthday and wants to see what he can kill with it.

The idea for The Swan apparently came from a news story and languished in Dahl’s ideas book for three decades before he eventually brought it to life.

This, despite Anderson’s flourishes, is a more insular tale than The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, and the formal quirk of stagehands shuffling props around is less enjoyable given the limitations of the story’s setting. It also lacks that nested story-within-a-story quality, asking the cast to be less chameleonic and offering fewer fun deviations that really allow Anderson and Dahl’s respective creative qualities to complement each other.

This is replaced, though, with a sturdier and more relatable moral backbone, and the grain of truth in Peter’s story only makes it harsher as it unfolds and, ultimately, more hopeful in its symbology. The short ends in a slightly more ambiguous way than the original story, but the same outcome is nonetheless implied through the narration and some visual signifiers.

READ: Wes Anderson Movies Ranked

That The Swan is both sweet and horrifying is a testament to the skills of both Dahl as a storyteller and Anderson as a filmmaker. It capably creates a charming figure you’ll want to root for and bullies you’ll hate, imbuing even the darkest moments with an odd beauty and building to a poignant statement about lingering trauma.

Is The Swan about bullying?

As deliberately idiosyncratic as it might be, it’s fundamentally quite a straightforward story that gets at something primitive about who we are, how we interact, how we grow, and how we wear our experiences in ways both obvious and not. It’s about bullying and trauma and how when we’re pressed far enough, we have a choice to either be cowed by the world or to flourish into a better, more beautiful version of ourselves.

It might not be as expansive and outright entertaining a work as The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, but it’s nonetheless a worthwhile entry in the Anderson/Dahl Netflix oeuvre.

What did you think of The Swan (2023)? Comment below.

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