Runtime: 120 minutes
Director: Matthew Warchus
Writer: Dennis Kelly (based on Matilda the Musical by Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly, and adapted from Matilda by Roald Dahl)
Starring: Alisha Weir, Lashana Lynch, Stephen Graham, Andrea Riseborough, Sindhu Vee, Emma Thompson
By Calum Cooper
Roald Dahl’s stories are imbued with a chaotic energy that have always felt natural on a cinema screen. Evidently, it feels natural on stage too given the roaring success of Matilda: The Musical, a 2010 musical adaptation of Dahl’s beloved book, Matilda. One would be forgiven for questioning the need to adapt this musical into film, due to the play’s fame, as well as the nostalgia for Danny DeVito’s 1996 version. Yet this film opens this year’s London Film Festival with giddy fervour; translating its stage counterpart into something joyous, and inherently cinematic.
Matilda Wormwood (Alisha Weir) does not fit in at home. Her parents (Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough) are vain, dim, and self-centred criminals. But she is an imaginative, inquisitive, and highly intelligent young girl who prefers the company of books and the stories they tell. She is finally allowed to go to school, but she and the other children find themselves under the tyrannical eye of the headmistress, Miss Trunchbull (Emma Thompson). As Matilda comes into her own, she decides to fight back against Trunchbull.
Dahl’s books are celebrated worldwide, and deservedly so. Yet they have received some scholarly criticism for portraying exaggerated, even binary, ethics. Children are good and (most) adults are evil, stupid, or both in Dahl’s worlds. However, Dennis Kelly’s script and Tim Minchin’s songs do not refrain from this. If anything, they wear this particular facet as a badge of honour. It’s a wise, welcome decision, for underneath this exaggeration and stylish presentation is a heartfelt look at trauma. Whether we are shaped by it, or find ways of escaping from it, trauma is something that underpins many of us. “Matilda: The Musical” (2022) is a celebration of the stories and characters that are formed when trauma is confronted.
Exaggeration is engrossingly presented through David Hindle and Christian Huband’s production design. Where a play is confined to the dimensions of the stage, the film expands upon these boundaries to create a visual spectacle that feels directly lifted from the illustrated pages of Dahl’s book. The rural, open landscapes gleam with sun-drenched colours as Matilda imagines her stories and discovers the full scope of her abilities. Meanwhile, the school that Trunchbull rules with an iron fist looks, fittingly, like a prison. Its murky walls and cold, claustrophobic linearity evoke hopelessness where Trunchbull commands, or at least demands, cartoonish levels of authority.
Entering the heterotopia of cinema allows this musical to revel in experimentation. The choreography is as immersive as it is confident and ambitious, and the expanded cast and set pieces imbue the film with an additional sense of wondrous scale. There is a kinetic energy to the editing and cinematography that can at times feel like whiplash. But it also acutely engages the senses with its imagery and songs, many of which are laced in metaphor as the characters navigate their dizzying circumstances of rapturous music or titanic loneliness. Escapism from the hardship of life is a common theme to this musical, especially in regards to how stories can fuel this distraction from reality. One odd choice in which a story Matilda is imagining seemingly mirrors the real life backstory of another character feels like a speed bump to this otherwise breezy thematic path. Nevertheless, the music keeps the material rich and exhilarating.
“Narratively lively, visually enchanting, and musically euphoric, it’s one of the closest any Roald Dahl adaptation has come to fully embodying the joys and melancholies that have made Dahl such an iconic storyteller.”
Minchin’s lyrics ululate at lightning speed. They match the rapid passion of the editing and choreography, capturing the heart that informs Dahl’s stories and characters with a unique sharpness. Perhaps they are revolting rhymes sung by revolting children, yet, like the best musicals, these songs reveal deeper inner worlds about those who sing and dance to them. Matilda is a genius, but her neglect at the hands of her vile parents causes a desire to belong the same way any child wishes to fit in. The same is true of Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch). On the surface she is the kind-hearted educational counterpart to Trunchbull. But in truth she is someone who grew up frightened all her life. Now, by seeing some of herself in Matilda, she can learn to find courage and belonging of her own. In other words, both are experiencing, and standing up to, trauma. It’s a quiet darkness lurking underneath the bright wackiness of Dahl’s story. Minchin’s lyrics delightfully relish in the latter while not shying away from the former. Matthew Warchus’s direction complements this through a mix of childlike eccentricity, and meditative reflection on how stories are both an escapism and a whetstone for creativity.
Bringing all of this immaculate flair to life are a range of dazzling performances from the film’s ensemble cast. Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough dial the ham factor to eleven in their portrayal of Matilda’s rotten parents, but do so with comical charisma that’s oddly irresistible in spite of their casual cruelty. The costume design and prosthetics that go into the creation of Miss Trunchbull are spectacularly animated – as if Quentin Blake’s original illustration has come to life. Working seamlessly with these prosthetics, Thompson delivers a towering performance full of gurning nefariousness; one that she was clearly having a ball with. Lynch gets to demonstrate her softer side after various action roles, showcasing a warm compassion and anxious desire that adds additional layers to the otherwise singular role of Miss Honey.
Even with the rambunctious melodies and contemplative direction, one could argue that much of the film lies on the shoulders of young Alisha Weir. Yet she rises to the challenge and more. Weir brings the lonely but passionate and rebellious character of Matilda to life with flying colours, quite literally in some scenes. Through her astonishing vocal range and magnetic resolution, Weir is the heart and soul of this picture. She truly makes this character her own, generating laughs, heartache, and plenty of wild-eyed excitement that personifies the very best of Dahl’s work.
Add it up and Matilda: The Musical becomes an idiosyncratic, yet wonderfully realised translation of its much celebrated source material. It elevates its own story to the cinematic plain with confident craftsmanship and a careful eye for subtext. Narratively lively, visually enchanting, and musically euphoric, it’s one of the closest any Roald Dahl adaptation has come to fully embodying the joys and melancholies that have made Dahl such an iconic storyteller. Past Matilda adaptations have gone on to shape many childhoods. For the next generation, this version will do the very same thing.