Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical is a mouthful of a title. The kind that usually harbors feelings of dread and hints at a film filled with forced whimsy and strained sentimentality. Happily, Matilda retains much of the magic of Dahl’s book and Danny DeVito’s 1996 classic, even though this latest incarnation is very much its own thing.
Matthew Warchus has taken the popular stage musical and turned it into a sweetly melancholic cry for anti-fascism. Not surprising when you realize that Warchus also directed 2014’s Pride, a feel-good movie about lesbian and gay activists helping British mining families affected by the British Mining Strike of 1984. Combine this with a whip-smart screenplay by Dennis Kelly, with catchy music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, and Matilda is a rollicking, toe-tapping, deeply felt musical adaptation of a beloved children’s classic.
It’s hard not to think about Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio when discussing Warchus’s musical anthem against authority. The two movies, although produced by corporate streaming juggernaut Netflix, both come with a fervently beating heart of anarchical rebellion. The difference lies not only in the storytellers but also in the characters.
Matilda Wormwood (Alisha Weir) is a child suck in an emotionally abusive household, soon thrust into a system run by abusive adults and constantly misgendered and mistreated. Her parents, father Harry (Stephen Graham) and Mrs. Wormwood (Andrea Riseborough), rather Matilda was a boy, and even then, they wish she wasn’t theirs. The headmistress the vile and evil Miss Trunchbull (Emma Thompson) views children as nuisances rather than human beings. The people who are supposed to look out for her only care about themselves and their power.
Thankfully she has Mrs. Phelps (Sindhu Vee), the mobile librarian, and her teacher Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch). Both women love and respect Matilda, but both are powerless in the face of seemingly overwhelming and unjust systems to do anything. Mrs. Phelps thinks Matilda’s parents love their daughter and never seems to pick up on the clues that Matilda is deeply unhappy at home. When she thinks Matilda is being bullied, her advice is to tell a grown-up or someone in charge, like her headmistress.
Meanwhile, Miss Honey struggles to stand up to her step aunt-the ruthless and sadistic Trunchbull. Thompson is almost unrecognizable as the sneering villainess who tortures and abuses the students of Trunchbull Academy. Outsized and scene-chewing, Thompson is never over-the-top as she swings children over the fence by their pigtails.
Warchus and Kelly tone down the magical realism, or rather channel it differently. Being a musical, there is already a feeling of magical realism baked into the idea. So, they focus less on Matilda’s psychic powers and more on how it helps her relate to other people—in other words, looking at how her own abuse connects her to others who have suffered abuse. One example of this is how Matilda’s home life drives her to escape into books fueling her imagination.
Matilda rushes to tell Miss Phelps a story she has thought of. Weir tells the story as if it is exploding from her; rushed and passionate, she lulls Miss Phelps into her made-up world of the Escapologist Magnus (Cal Spencer) and his acrobat wife played by Lauren Alexandra. It is only later, while at Miss Honey’s home, that this story bubbling inside her isn’t a story; it is Miss Honey’s tragic childhood that just so happens to mirror Matilda’s. It is shocking to her while also being a beacon of hope. After all, if Miss Honey could be the loving and kind person she is despite being raised by Miss Trunchbull, then Matilda may not be doomed after all.
As Matilda repeatedly sings, “Just because I find myself in this story, It doesn’t mean everything is written for me.” The songs in Matilda are clever in that way that is deceptive. The lyrics seem simple, yet on re-watches, one catches layers and rhymes laced throughout, giving the musical a fuller complex sound. The thematic complexity is part of the film’s charm: Warchus and the DP Tat Radcliffe use a lively storybook feeling and fuse it with a sort of dreamy melancholia.
The song “When I Grow Up” is a perfect example. The song is sung by the other children in Matilda’s class and explores how children view growing up and grown-ups as a moment when you are no longer scared and have all the answers. However, this is contrasted with Miss Honey singing the chorus with a trembling voice, along with Matilda’s confident refrain of an earlier song refusing to bend to Miss Trunchbull or her parents. The scene conjured up a well of emotion within me as I both understood, pitied, and related to these children as they saw themselves growing up and thus victorious over their troubles.
Some kids imagine themselves as jet pilots, but the planes are part of the Royal Air Force. As children, we dream of things only because we lack the understanding of what we are dreaming of. Yes, many children dream of flying; some even dream of joining the air force, but few understand what that actually entails. The moment is triumphant, with the music crescendoing and the smoke trails being multi-colored, but I couldn’t help the mournful shiver that ripped up my spine.
Weir as Matilda is magnificent, straddling vulnerability, rage, and terror, with a strange sort of calm emanating from her posture. She delivers her lines and lyrics with such ease and command that we can feel the power bubbling beneath the surface. But it is not the power of telepathy but the power of a child realizing her own worth. Understand that it takes a sizable talent to anchor a movie and hold their own against either Lashana Lynch or Emma Thompson and Weir does it in a movie opposite both of them.
As Miss Honey, Lynch is radiant. In a movie where everyone is either made to look exaggerated or plays a character larger than life, Lynch’s Miss Honey is the eye of the storm. Her eyes swim with love and compassion as she looks at Matilda but flashes with hurt and sorrow when she realizes the hurt she feels. It is a sublime performance for an actor, but especially for one who had already turned in a verifiable achievement in her role as Izogie in this year’s earlier picture, The Woman King.
I knew I would probably enjoy Matilda. I was not expecting to be reduced to tears. Though I don’t know why, considering I break down crying reading Dahl’s book every time. But the thematic and emotional complexity which is allowed to erupt thanks to Minchin’s lyrics is a joyous expression of rebellion and freedom. One of the final songs, “Revolting Children,” shows how the language used by oppressors is often appropriated by the oppressed and used as a rallying cry. The image of the children tearing down a statue of Miss Trunchbull resonates in an era in which tearing down statutes is viewed as publicly transgressive as opposed to what it is, tearing down the history of oppressors.
Warchus and Kelly use Trunchbull to show how school can strip away a child’s humanity. How education concerned purely with social conformity and preparing a child for the workforce can squash their spirit and make them easy to control. The children ever sing about how they have been locked in this “cage for ages”. All of this ties into how Matilda shows the value of misbehaving or “being a little bit naughty.”
To put it another way, becoming ungovernable. Fascists hate imagination and hate it when language and other forms of expression become less uniform and require context. Matilda is a stirring anthem for revolution as well as a warm loving hug in a world increasingly hostile and cynical towards such sincerity.
Image courtesy of Netflix
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