Director: Matthew Warchus. Starring: Alisha Weir, Emma Thompson, Lashana Lynch, Stephen Graham, Andrea Riseborough. PG certified, 117 minutes
Miss Honey makes millennials nostalgic. She was, for many of us, our movie crush. Embeth Davidtz’s performance, in Danny DeVito’s 1996 Big Heart Matilda adaptation, made us wonder why we couldn’t all be respected as child geniuses by a caring teacher. Watching Lashana Lynch play the role of a new generation, I imagined Gen Alpha 20 years from now, reflecting fondly on how she – and her wardrobe of sundresses and cardigans – marked the whole first time they fell in love.
Lynch’s performance best embodies, in a way, what this latest Matilda is and strives to be: something warm and familiar. Based on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s hit musical, it has no desire to top DeVito’s version; he just sits next to it. There’s no attempt to improve on the source material of Tony’s winning stage adaptation, written by Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly; she only wants to faithfully translate her spirit. In reality, I can’t imagine any other way it could work. There’s too much history and too much childhood nostalgia from the book, movie, and musical that ensues on every beat of the story. The Matilda here we come, so – officially titled by Roald Dahl Mathilde the musical – is a frothy, whimsical delight that encompasses all the expectations we must have already placed on it. It’s inherently British enough that I half-expect it to be absorbed into the Paddington cinematic universe soon.
For anyone who didn’t grow up on a bedtime Dahl Pound Diet, Matilda tells the story of a boy genius (Alisha Weir’s Matilda Wormwood) despised by his own parents (Andrea Riseborough and Stephen Graham). His mother calls him a “good case for population control”; his father calls him “a troublemaker goblin”. They just can’t conceive of a girl who wants to spend her days reading books and writing stories, instead of languishing in front of a TV like them. When they finally reluctantly enroll her in a school, she meets the best and worst of adulthood: her sweet teacher Miss Honey and the tyrannical headmistress Miss Trunchbull (Emma Thompson). She is nurtured by one, terrorized by the other – who help Matilda grow in courage, intellect, and (as she discovers) telekinetic superpowers.
Director Matthew Warchus, who is the artistic director of Old Vic and helmed the original stage production, has welcome confidence in his young cast. It’s the rare musical that actually allows its performance hall to breathe. There is an inherent theatrics in the staging and intricacy in the choreography: the lunch tables are set wide apart so that students have room to jump, spin and stomp with wild abandon. There are disco-influenced choirs and top shots of revolving dancers a la Busby Berkeley. And, boy, are these kids talented – in that they retroactively shamed me for my own pointless childhood. Weir, who is perfectly cast, is as invested in Matilda’s misdeeds as he is in her loneliness.
As you’d expect from what is essentially a family musical, the film doesn’t question Dahl’s novel, despite the fact that there is some questioning. As Matilda’s villainous parents, Riseborough and Graham are a wacky delight to watch – but they’re the only characters coded as working class, and the only characters depicted as having an active disdain for literature and education. Thompson has several of the best lines in the film (“he should have thought of that before he made a deal with Satan and stole my cake”, for example), even if his performance is sometimes lost under all prosthetics. But the fact that the devilish Miss Trunchbull is depicted as masculine and athletic, while the good Miss Honey is feminine and maternal, doesn’t seem like the right message to send to young girls.
But these are Dahl’s views, scattered throughout his work, and are so embedded in Matilda that it’s virtually impossible to pull them apart and end up with the same recognizable story. It’s a matter of what we’re willing to put up with 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. always know better. When the film’s catchiest and most bouncy track, “Revolting Children,” kicks in, that spirit of youthful rebellion begins to feel awfully infectious.
“Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical” will be released by Sony Pictures only in UK and Irish cinemas on November 25, 2022. It will be available to stream on Netflix UK & Ireland Summer 2023