Matilda is born of whizpopping minds. From Roald Dahl’s original battle cry to young rebels to the smash hit stage musical dreamed up two decades later by Tim Minchin, Dennis Kelly and Matthew Warchus. It’s their take on the tale that forms the basis of this new film. Dahl’s book has, after all, enjoyed the pleasure of adaptation, courtesy of Danny DeVito’s fondly remembered 1998 box office flop. As though to mitigate potential reprisal for such financial failure, Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical – to give the film its full title – is to be constrained to Netflix in all global territories but the UK. What a crying shame. This may be a film for and about little people but it’s a tour de force show stopper and duly demands the very biggest of screens.
On the stage, a clutch of youngsters rotate the role of Matilda across any given week. Here, the whole film rests on the shoulders just one. Alisha Weir, an Irish starlet plucked straight from drama school, makes for a spirited and surprisingly fierce hero. There’s an intensity to her gaze far older than her years. Certainly, it’s easier to believe Weir’s Matilda to be the victim of eleven years’ neglect than ever were the case with the doe eyed Mara Wilson. It figures. As directed by Warchus, this is a far nastier film than was DeVito’s. Nasty in that most delicious of family film flavours. Comedy bleeds seamlessly into the darkness of Dahl’s imagination and, while never traumatic, the film is brave in its refusal to blunt the brutality of the story’s sharper corners. In doing so, of course, the pay off proves all the sweeter.
Give or take the odd librarian or solitary teacher, Matilda is surrounded in life by utterly fowl adults. Right from the off, in a fabulously over-saturated opening number, Matilda’s parents are introduced as Thenardier types, bitterly convinced that the world owes them more than their lot. Stephen Graham plays Mr. Wormwood, a car dealer cum con artist, who comes increasingly to resemble an Oompa Loompa on falling fowl of his daughter’s wrath. That he spends the entire film calling her ‘boy’ does justify the prank.
Andrea Riseborough is Mrs. Wormwood, a woman whose dislike of children is so intense that she denies the very existence of her own right up until the final moment of the third trimester. When asked if she’d like to hear about Matilda’s first ever day at school, Mrs. Wormwood drolls: ‘I’d rather eat vegetables’. It’s proper pantomime stuff, vocal intonation and all. Quite the left turn from an actor usually found on the film festival circuit. Never has she worn such horrifically eighties excess.
The Wormwoods may be book-hating philistines but even they aren’t so bad as Matilda’s Crunchem Hall headmistress. Simultaneously played by Emma Thompson, a pair of fake breasts, half a dozen shoulder pads and three inches of prosthetic make up, Agatha Trunchbull could hardly be more exquisitely realised here. On stage, Trunchbull is usually performed by a man, so as to fully convey her intimidating build, but Thompson’s tyrannical Agatha would eat them alive – and with the wallpaper for desert. It’s a gloriously unflattering performance and one that wreaks out a hypocrisy that could so easily be swallowed up farce. Trunchbull is not simply evil, she is a liar and a cheat. In Dahl’s world, that it is the ultimate sin.
If the inherent theatricality of Kelly’s script does, at times, threaten to bog down Matilda – which feels long at almost two hours – Warchus cannot be said to have failed to grasp the opportunities offered by a cinematic transition. A wealth of detail proliferates each and every scene. Watch for the maggot shaming mottos all over Trunchball’s penitentiary school and pay close attention in Matilda’s brief visit to Miss Honey’s (a completely lovely Lashana Lynch) shack. This attention to the small stuff teeters on the overwhelming and only in rewatches will fully uncover the film’s many gems.
Particular exuberance explodes in Matilda’s many musical sequences, in which an extraordinary number of young extras are put to meticulous choreographical use. By the time ‘Revolting Children’ – the show’s anthem to anarchy – lands, it does so with such infectious energy that older audiences might well find themselves yearning for a return to their own childhood. The same is true of ‘When I Grow Up’. What it would be to believe, once again, in the impossible.