D: Matthew Warchus. Cast: Alisha Weir, Emma Thompson, Lashana Lynch, Stephen Graham, Andrea Riseborough. Cert PG, 117 minutes
Miss Honey makes millennials wistful. For many of us, she was our defining film crush. Embeth Davidtz’s appearance in Danny DeVito’s Big Hearted 1996 Mathilde Adjustment, made us wonder why we couldn’t all be respected as child geniuses by a kind teacher. As I watched Lashana Lynch play the role for a new generation, I envisioned Gen Alpha 20 years from now and thought fondly of how she — and her wardrobe of sundresses and cardigans — was like the very first time they fell in love .
In some ways, Lynch’s performance best embodies what’s new Mathilde is and wants to be: something warm and familiar. Based on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s hit musical, it has no desire to top DeVito’s version; it is content to sit next to it. There’s no attempt to improve upon the source material of the Tony-winning stage adaptation, written by Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly; it just wants to faithfully translate its spirit. Realistically, I can’t think of any other way it could work. There’s too much history and too much childhood nostalgia from the book, the film, and the subsequent musical that’s weighted on every beat of the story. That Mathilde so here we come – formally titled Roald Dahl’s Matilda the musical – is a frothy, whimsical treat that lives up to every expectation we already had of it. It’s so quintessentially British that I almost expect it to be included in the Paddington cinematic universe soon.
For anyone who didn’t grow up on a bedtime diet from Dahl’s books, Mathilde tells the story of a diminutive genius (Alisha Weir’s Matilda Wormwood) despised by her own parents (Andrea Riseborough and Stephen Graham). Her mother calls her a “good case for population control”; her father calls her “a troublemaker”. You just can’t imagine a girl who would want to spend her day reading books and writing stories instead of languishing in front of a TV like her. When they finally reluctantly enroll her in a school, she meets the best and worst of adulthood: her good-natured teacher, Miss Honey, and the tyrannical headmistress, Miss Trunchbull (Emma Thompson). Nurtured by one, terrorized by the other – both helping Matilda grow in courage, intellect and (as she discovers) telekinetic superpowers.
Director Matthew Warchus, artistic director of the Old Vic and head of the original stage production, has welcomed confidence in his young cast. This is the rare musical that actually gives its performances room to breathe. There is an inherent theatricality to the staging and complexity to the choreography: lunch tables are dramatically pulled away to give the students space to jump, pirouette and stomp with wild abandon. There are disco-inspired choirs and top shots of Busby-Berkeley-style circling dancers. And, boy, are these kids talented — to the extent that they retrospectively made me feel ashamed of my own useless childhood. Perfectly cast, Weir invests equally in Matilda’s misery and her loneliness.
As one would expect from a family musical, the film doesn’t challenge Dahl’s novel, although there are grounds for questioning. As Matilda’s mean parents, Riseborough and Graham are a ridiculous treat to watch – but they’re the only characters coded as working class and the only characters portrayed with an active disdain for literature and education. Thompson has many of the film’s best lines (“he should have thought of that before he made a deal with Satan and stole my cake”), even if her performance is occasionally lost among all the prosthetics. But the fact that evil Miss Trunchbull is portrayed as masculine and athletic while good Miss Honey is feminine and motherly hardly feels like the right message to young girls.
But these are Dahl’s views that run through his work and are so embedded Mathilde that it’s pretty much impossible to free them and still have the same recognizable story. It’s a question of what we’re willing to endure to appreciate the best of his legacy — the confidence he always had in the intelligence, agency, and emotional maturity of his young audience, and the liberating concept that parents don’t have always know best. When the film’s catchiest and liveliest track, “Revolting Children,” begins, that youthful spirit of rebellion begins to feel terribly contagious.
Matilda opens the BFI London Film Festival. It will be released in UK cinemas on November 25th and in US cinemas on December 9th, before being available to stream worldwide on Netflix starting December 25th
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/reviews/matilda-the-musical-film-review-b2197635.html Matilda the Musical Movie: Starring Emma Thompson as Miss Trunchbull, the movie is a frothy, whimsical delight