LFF 2022: Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical

Release Date – 25th November 2022, Cert – PG, Run-time – 1 hour 57 minutes, Director – Matthew Warchus

After being constantly belittled and undermined by the controlling adults in her life schoolgirl Matilda (Alisha Weir) puts her mind, imagination and storytelling abilities towards getting revenge.

While having not seen the stage version of Matilda The Musical it seems apparent from watching the film adaptation that there are plenty of moments designed to be enjoyed live with an audience, particularly when it comes to potential stagecraft and effects. There’s a fair deal of CGI throughout the film as we explore the imagination and potential telekinetic powers of the titular figure (Alisha Weir), particularly increasing in the third act and the confrontations that it produces. Yet, the film certainly doesn’t feel like it could easily be played out on a stage, not just because of the various long shots of hundreds of bodies dancing in a courtyard or running through the school corridors.

We open straight into a big musical number. Loud, proud, bright and slightly camp the world is coloured with glaring lights and tones as we’re told just how much of a joy life, particularly new life, is – contrasting greatly to the underwhelmed, to say the least, response of Andrea Riseborough’s Mrs Wormwood. Jump forward a couple of years and Mrs Wormwood, alongside her husband (Stephen Graham) are still bringing up their daughter, but often neglecting her to the attic, lined with a handful of books – not including those which she borrows from the travelling library run by Sindhu Vee’s Mrs Phelps who thinks the world of the young girl so fascinated with reading.

For musical sceptics it’s unlikely that these opening stages are going to turn minds as a lot emerges from the scream at great volume with little response and connection. Yet, while the first impressions may not be the greatest, you do start to prepare for a very long, slightly over the top two hours, things begin to somewhat settle down as Matilda is sent to Crunchem Hall. A notoriously strict school led by former hammer throwing champion Miss Trunchbull (Emma Thompson). A rather contrasting role to her earlier stellar performance in this year’s Good Luck To You, Leo Grande, Thompson is clearly having a great time playing up the nasty villain role.

With her belief that all children are maggots there’s a very traditional storybook villain to Thompson’s performance which adds to the film as a whole. With the way that certain elements come across, largely the way that some of the adults in Matilda’s life treat and talk down to her and other kids, there seems to be a fair deal that specifically speaks to younger audiences. It’s largely in certain interactions and pieces of dialogue where the lines feel as if they could have come directly from the mind of a child – when asked if she’d like to hear about her daughter’s first day at school Riseborough’s character throws away the line “yuck, I’d rather eat vegetables”. Such interactions inspire Matilda to leap further into sprawling stories of her own creation, leading her to take action after seeing the punishment other kids face for doing very little to upset the headteacher of the school – although we largely only hear rumours of the dreaded ‘Chokey’.

Of course, aside from the dives into fiction and storytelling there are plenty of songs to burst into – this is Matilda The Musical after all. Largely the film has been sold on its earworms such as When I Grow Up. As mentioned, I haven’t seen the stage musical version but I had heard this particularly track a number of times. There’s an emotional punch to it as the adult chorus joins in with the central children’s voices, something which doesn’t quite come into play here until a brief moment part way through, seeming to take something away from the song a bit. That is until Lashana Lynch’s Miss Honey takes to the stage. This is yet another role where Lynch proves that she can pretty much do anything. A warm and kind performance you simply wish that you could see more of her throughout the film, particularly in the first half, so you can see more of the kindness and belief she demonstrates towards her new student Matilda.

The musical numbers certainly have a specific style to them and there are a number which are enjoyable in the moment and simply help to bring you further into the tall, stone walls of Crunchem Hall, perhaps where the best elements of the film occur. There’s a cartoon-like nature to some of the sequences (not the child abuse, which even after various iterations of this story you forget how much there is) which largely revolves around the clear villains. Further pushing the childlike nature and perspective that the film lightly carries throughout a number of its events and sequences. Narratively it certainly gets a lot into two hours, meaning that certain elements don’t always get as much time to shine or develop as they might perhaps need or want – again, Matilda’s relationship with Miss Honey. But, as a whole with what you do see there’s plenty to enjoy and get caught up with once you’ve settled into the film, and the film itself has settled down somewhat.

With a cast who are clearly having a good time camping it up – particularly Thompson relishing lines such as “to teach the child we must first break the child”, alongside fellow antagonists Riseborough and Graham – there’s eventually quite a bit to engage and enjoy within Matilda The Musical. There may be some bumps along the way within the busy course of the film, but thanks to the fast energy of some of the musical numbers, and the child’s mind nature that’s brought to certain characters and instances, it’s easy to remain caught up in it and engaged. Get past the first 20 or so minutes and there’s quite a bit to like about the way some of these familiar events are presented. Bruce Bogtrotter (Charlie Hodson-Prior) eating a multi-layered chocolate cake slathered in icing may start out like a trial but as the number picks up and the crowd of kids encourage him there’s something rather enjoyable about the proceedings.

Things may take a bit of time to calm down before you can properly ease into them, but once they do there’s a more controlled energy to the busy course of Matilda The Musical. Thompson steals the show while the supporting cast, especially Lynch, put in good efforts. The road may be bumpy, but there’s plenty to engage and enjoy throughout.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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