Matilda is the first musical to open the London Film Festival and this adaptation of the mega-successful West End show is brightly coloured – though full of darkness – exuberantly performed and inventively shot.
Many adults will likely become a tad restless when Emma Thompson – as scary and batshit crazy headmistress Miss Trunchbull – is off screen. But for the under-12s, the movie offers one jolt of joy after another.
As the somewhat ungainly title suggests, director Matthew Warchus’ offering is inspired by Roald Dahl’s 1988 classic book, which was then adapted for the stage by the Royal Shakespeare Company. And, as in the book, Matilda (here played by impressively intense Irish newcomer, Alisha Weir), is a prodigious youngster locked in a battle with tyrants, both at home and at school.
Her parents, Mr and Mrs Wormwood (Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough), are self-absorbed bullies. Just as vile is Trunchbull (Thompson is barely recognisable under prosthetics), head of Crushem Hall.
But Matilda has a kind and intelligent teacher in Miss Honey, played by Lashana Lynch, who is adorable and moving, particularly when singing My House. When our iconoclastic heroine discovers she has telekenetic powers, we hope: might Matilda have what it takes to create a happy ending for those she loves?
The show’s naughty songs, thought up by Tim Minchin back in 2010, show no signs of ageing. Like the titular heroine, the ditties are touched by genius, with Miracle, The Hammer and The Smell of Rebellion the obvious standouts.
Thompson and Warchus have an especially good time with that last one. Miss Trunchbull goes into an ecstatic trance as she imagines a world populated by white horses and birds. The irascible pedagogue is so enchanted by her reverie that she starts skipping around.
Then the weirdness goes up a notch: picture soft-focus footage of Britain’s national treasure on a swing, in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? make-up, whimpering the words “Don’t let them steal your horses!” It’s enjoyable, monumental whimsy - though for me, Thompson isn’t as divine as the stage show’s original Trunchbull, Bertie Carvel; his version had a layer that hers lacks.
Highlights include the two children with Down Syndrome who appear in a montage about doted-on infants (that’s not something we’re used to seeing in a big budget film), and all the bits with lovely librarian Mrs Phelps (Sindhu Vee).
She encourages Matilda to tell stories, about an escapologist and his acrobat wife (Carl Spencer and Lauren Alexandra), stories which unfold before our eyes and provide one stirring spectacle after another.
In some ways, this film is deeply conventional. Matilda is raised by Cockneys yet sounds like a boarder at a Putney prep school. You expect that kind of thing from a film like Oliver!, but it’s 2022. Why is this young hero not allowed to have a working class accent?
Warchus’ wonderful 2014 movie Pride was a more consistently involving affair. But that he and the rest of the Matilda the Musical team have kept so much of the show’s bite remains impressive. The best moments are extraordinary and Thompson’s Trunchbull will haunt my dreams, quite possibly for ever.
120 mins, cert PG
Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical opens the LFF on October 6; at the Southbank Centre, and will be released in cinemas on November 25