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‘Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical’ Review: Emma Thompson Goes Big and Bad in Brashly Entertaining Netflix Adaptation



Like The Wizard of Oz or Peter Panthe story of Matilda has endured in many different forms with tweaks and adjustments — first as a very English book for the young, then as an Americanized movie, and then a stage musical that’s now a film adaptation of that stage musical — precisely because it’s so damn weird.

The chatty-catty narration of the 1988 novel by Roald Dahl constantly dives off in peculiar directions, makes frequent snarky asides and, like so much of Dahl’s work, is often laugh-aloud funny as it tells the story of the super-smart eponymous girl. who defies her philistine parents to become a reader and goes up against bullying headmistress Miss Trunchbull. But it’s also chock-full of horrors and casual cruelty inflicted on kids by adults, such as hurling children around by their hair and locking them in iron maiden-like punishment boxes. Mind you, the heroine also gets back at adults sometimes — for example, by supergluing a hat to her neglectful father’s head and using telekinetic powers that, while not rising to the horror level of Carrieare still scary enough to terrify grown headmistresses.

Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical

The Bottom Line

Bright enough to blind you to its darkness.

Venue: BFI London Film Festival (Galas)
Cast: Alisha Weir, Emma Thompson, Lashana Lynch, Stephen Graham, Andrea Riseborough, Sindhu Vee, Charlie Hodson-Prior, Meesha Garbett, Rei Yamauchi Fulker, Winter Jarrett Glasspool, Andrei Shen, Ashton Robertson, Carl Spencer, Lauren Alexandra, Katherine Kingsley, Amanda Lawrence
Director: Matthew Warchus
Screenwriter: Dennis Kelly

1 hour 57 minutes

If it weren’t for the fact that it all unfolds in a world full of whimsy, chocolate cake and magical children who can read William Faulkner and Jane Austen novels before they start Kindergarten, the story would end up with social workers and charges of child abuse To put a finer point on it, it’s not that we, as a society, have become less tolerant of child abuse than people were a generation ago. But we do police representations of it with much more scrutiny, and that sort of makes the jocularity of Matilda a little — as they say these days — problematic.

That all poses some particular tonal challenges for the team behind this film version of the latest stage musical, a crew led by director Matthew Warchus (Pride), who also directed the stage show originally for the Royal Shakespeare Company, which premiered in 2010. With an assist from Dennis Kelly, the author of the show’s book, on the screenplay, tunes by composer and lyricist Tim Minchin, a lavish production budget and inspired casting, the team manages to hit most of the right notes with this perky, peculiar adaptation. Or maybe the film has just enough bright shiny objects and tightly synchronized dancing-child chorus lines to stop anyone from caring about all that problematic whatnot. In any case, it mostly works.

Those familiar with the intellectual property at hand will know that Warchus and Co.’s theatrical adaptation departed a bit from Dahl’s source. It dispensed with characters like Matilda’s brother and the school’s deputy headmaster, and added in the bit where Matilda tells her librarian friend Mrs. Phelps the story of an acrobat and an escapologist that proves crucial later. So if the show was a bit different from the book, the film of the show is hardly different at all except that some of the songs have been cut and it has been squeezed down into a manageable, short-attention-span-friendly 117 minutes. .

Meanwhile, trading theater spaces for real-world locations like massive stately home Bramshill House to stand in for Matilda’s school Crunchem Hall inevitably skews the film towards a more naturalistic feel. Ditto the use of visual effects instead of the old-school wire and lighting tricks the show deployed so effectively.

All that doesn’t make the end product worse or better, but it does make it different, and Warchus has been canny about who plays who and how broad he’s let the cast get with the intrinsically over-the-top material. Irish moppet Alisha Weir, who was still a tween when this was filmed, anchors the picture with her irrepressible energy in the central role, projecting a righteous indignation at the injustices around her that’s rootable-for but still vulnerable.

The “big” stars in the cast are not such huge household names that they eclipse Weir, and the performances strike a delicate balance between comic breadth and cinematic subtlety. In this regard, Emma Thompson offers up a master class in threading the needle while still under a ton of ugly latex (bringing back happy memories of her Nanny McPhee franchise). Having a great year with this as well as her turn in Good luck to you, Leo Grande, Thompson even manages to inject a tiny sliver of humanity into the film’s chief villain, Miss Trunchball, especially with her dulcet rendition of “Hammer,” wherein Trunchball brags about her sporting triumph in hammer-throwing and ability to stick rigidly to the rules of the sports. (“And if you want to make the team/You don’t need happiness or self-esteem,” she trills.)

As Matilda’s vulgar, TV-watching and ballroom-dancing parents, Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough are right in tune with Thompson’s approach to caricature, with Riseborough in especially ripe comic form in the opening scene, where she refuses to admit she’s pregnant even as the contractions start. The gloriously gaudy costumes by Rob Howell and hair and make-up by Sharon Martin help, harmonizing with the production design’s palette of hot, sunny pastels.

Perhaps the most surprising performance is that of Lashana Lynch as kindly teacher Miss Honey, nearly the only adult (apart from Sindhu Vee’s Mrs. Phelps) who shows any kindness to Matilda. Although millions saw Lynch in the last Bond film No Time to Die, her performance was almost entirely overshadowed by the hoo-haw over the fact that she, a Black woman, was playing the latest agent to take the 007 designation. This should also be a good year for her on the back of her performance The Woman King and, for a hot second earlier in 2022, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Here she gets to show off a much softer side as the kind of kindly schoolteacher every lonely, bright child loved in grade school, and a strong set of lungs to boot, flaunted to good effect in her big solo for ‘My House.’

Where the inelegantly but undoubtedly quite specifically titled Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical really makes its bones is in the big showstopping numbers like ‘School Song’ and ‘Revolting Children,’ in which the ensemble of tightly rehearsed tykes get to strut their stuff. Usually looking and singing right at the camera, which seems to recoil in retreat from their assault, they’re the most bad-ass assembly of school kids to come along since Malcolm McDowell burned down the academy in If…. (1968). They’re not problematic; they’re problem solvers.

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