Updated: Dec 6, 2022
Review by Raphael Kohn
Stage-to-screen adaptations are notoriously hit-and-miss. On the one hand, we have 2021’s West Side Story, bringing Leonard Bernstein’s iconic score to the silver screen in a dark, gristly reinvention from Steven Spielberg. On the other hand, we have Cats (2019), which is certainly a film that exists. Could Tim Minchin, Matthew Warchus and Dennis Kelly's West End phenomenon Matilda live up to the challenge?
I’ll save you from holding your breath now – it can, and with remarkable excellence. This is a spectacularly flawless adaptation delivered by the same creative team as the stage show, brought to life with panache, wit, and a good helping of darkness to seal this into the history books of movie musicals as the new gold standard.
The book has been a staple of children’s reading for decades. This surprisingly dark story first came to life on stage at the RSC in 2010 before moving to the West End, where it’s succeeded for over 10 years and 4000 performances. And with a score and book as exceptional as Minchin and Kelly's’, it’s not hard to see why it's succeeded so well.
Matilda tells Roald Dahl’s famous children’s story of our eponymous heroine’s battle against bullying and abuse – and by bullying, I mean from her headteacher, Agatha Trunchbull, who enforces brutal discipline by use of the ‘chokey’ (a child-sized torture chamber), physical violence and even cake-based public humiliation.
Let’s not ignore the obvious here – this is a musical about child abuse. There, I said it. Matilda is neglected, insulted and berated by her telly-loving parents and her headmistress threatens to lock her in a dark cupboard with nails stabbing in. Quite how Dahl envisaged this as a children’s story I’m not quite sure, but it’s stood the test of time.
Matilda is a tour-de-force of exceptional musical filmmaking from its creative team. Matthew Warchus’s direction brings the film to life with supreme style. Warchus brings us comedy from the dazzling, almost grotesque aesthetic in the Wormwoods’ scenes and shadowy gloom in the school, called ‘Crunchem Hall’, a grey, grim and grimy penitentiary. Yet, the energy never drops while these two opposing tones blend seamlessly.
All of this is filmed stylishly by Tat Radcliffe’s cinematographic flair and with the exact detail and genius that only the team who understand the stage musical best could do. It is a visual masterpiece.
Peter Darling, who choreographed the stage musical, did not return for the film, but Ellen Kane, who worked on the original choreography with Darling, has done a superlative job in his place. The punchy, riveting motions performed by swathes of children under 10 years old in age are brought to the big screen with hordes of some of the most talented children you will ever see, which is only improved by Radcliffe’s soaring, swinging camera motions to bring out the very best in the dancing.
No musical could ever be successful without its leads. Initially, it was announced that Ralph Fiennes would be taking on the role of Miss Trunchbull (brought to life on stage first by Bertie Carvel), but it was later announced that Emma Thompson would be performing the role instead. I won’t lie that I was a touch worried – ‘how could the wonderful Karen (named before that word took on modern connotations) from Love Actually play such a monster?’ – I thought. I want to personally apologise to Queen Emma for ever doubting her. Thompson’s portrayal is fierce, terrifying, and also hilarious. With the vocal skill to match (much improved since her acting-reliant Mrs Lovett), she is the perfect Trunchbull.
Lashana Lynch brings character and a soft warmth to Miss Honey, putting you at ease as soon as she comes on screen. Watching her performance is a bit like curling up by a fire with a blanket and a cup of tea. Lynch’s versatility and dramatic virtuosity is a treat on screen, perhaps a polar opposite to her scene-stealing turn as the new 007 in 2021’s No Time To Die. I hope to see her in more movie musicals.
But above all, it is Alisha Weir’s performance as Matilda that carries this film into the stratosphere of movie musical rankings. With few credits to her name, Weir performs the role of Matilda with gentle determinedness, the epitome of what the character should be. Vocally, Weir’s voice is consistently in tune, characterful and with surprising power. Alongside Thompson Trunchbull and Lynch’s Honey, she more than holds her own on screen with her believable and endlessly supportable performance.
The supporting cast are all exceptional too, with a fine roster of performers gracing the screen. Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough are hilariously camp with their portrayals as Mr and Mrs Wormwood, while Sindhu Vee adds sparkle and smile with her performance as Mrs Phelps, the librarian who Matilda visits for reading and storytelling. However, as with the stage version, the children steal the show. Meesha Garnett (whose vivacious turn in ‘Revolting Children’ went viral on TikTok) and Charlie Hodson-Prior do a fantastic job as Hortensia and Bruce Bogtrotter. Likewise, the entire singing and dancing ensemble (with a few familiar West End faces in the adult ensemble) is a joy to watch from start to finish.
And what material they have to work with! Tim Minchin cemented his name as one of the world’s finest musical comedians in the 2000s, when he toured with his one-person stand-up-shows-cum-concerts, but gained household name status with his score and lyrics to Matilda. Translating to the screen with flair, his upbeat, poppy score, with numbers such as ‘Miracle’, ‘Bruce’ and ‘Revolting Children’ is guaranteed to get you dancing in your seat. But as with his live performances, Minchin excels best in his quietest moments, such as his beautiful songs ‘When I Grow Up’, ‘Quiet’ and ‘My House’. Bring tissues to the cinema. You can thank me later.
Orchestrated to perfection, and with spectacular incidental music underscoring much of the dialogue, is Christopher Nightingale’s genius writing. Adding in flourishes that distinguish the film’s music greatly from the stage score, from the off-beat pulses in the opening number to the expanded, thick texture of the orchestral sound of many of the numbers, Nightingale has created a real treat for your ears. He is a composer and arranger to watch out for, and I hope his work continues with the long line of stage musicals that are destined to receive the cinematic treatment in the next few years.
I think it’s reasonably evident from this rambling mess of a love letter to Matilda that I rather loved this film. I couldn’t find a single thing I could fairly fault. Catch this on the big screen before it receives a wider release on Netflix. You won’t regret it.
Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical is released by Sony Pictures only in cinemas across the UK & Ireland from 25 November 2022. It will be released on Netflix UK & Ireland in Summer 2023 and on Netflix internationally on 25 December 2022.