A confession. Twelve years ago (almost to the day) my parents sat me down in front of their rickety PCs and got me and my siblings signed up for the RSC Key – a now (unfortunately retired) program to bring young people to the theatre. A few weeks later, with a trusty £5 note in hand, we went to the temporary Courtyard Theater in Stratford-upon-Avon to witness the birth of what has since become a musical juggernaut – the multi-award winning Matildawinner of numerous Tony Awards and perhaps one of the UK’s subsidized sector’s greatest stage exports of this century.
Since 2010, composer Tim Minchin, writer Dennis Kelly and director Matthew Warchus’ wacky production of Roald Dahl’s much-loved children’s tale about an unhappy schoolgirl who develops superpowers to overthrow her tyrannical headmistress Miss Trunchbull, have starred in the West End, Broadway and across the world to places like the Philippines, Korea, South Africa, China and beyond. It has countless fans, spawned numerous musical careers and marked the RSC’s biggest commercial success since all that palaver with the French barricades. But he holds a special place in my heart because I was there, with a £5 note, at the start of it all.
Of course, I’ve grown up now and, like any successful musical (*cough*, In the Heights, Dear Evan Hansen, Wicked, Rent, Mamma Mia!, Into the Woods, The Color Purple, Hairspray, Chicago, The Phantom of the Opera *cough*) Matilda made its way to the big screen. Well – in a sense – in the UK and Ireland it’s hitting cinemas this week, while everywhere else it’s streaming straight to Netflix next month.
Why this is the case is a mystery. It may have simply been the byproduct of corporate juggling after Netflix’s acquisition of Road Dahl Story Company. Maybe the American distributors were afraid that the shadow of the 1996 Matilda The film, courtesy of Danny DeVito, would be so long that he would discourage all Americans from a new release and decided not to go for a riskier theatrical release.
Be that as it may, it’s a bit of a shame for our American colleagues, because this Matilda is a brilliant and dynamic bonanza of musical fantasy, which must be seen on the big screen to be served at its best. For UK fans, it’s also worth pointing out that we won’t be seeing it on stream until next summer.
Not least because of the choreography by RSC regular Ellen Kane (Kane, along with director Warchus, is one of many to return for the film after helping to birth the show in Stratford). Some of the sets are physically spellbinding – retaining the core of what made the show so eerily kinetic while embracing the film’s greatest possibilities and employing a gargantuan (and flawless) ensemble of young performers. Kudos to the casting team of Lucy Bevan, Emily Brockmann and Will Burton. This means the film can use long and extended shots, showing off the dance prowess of the cast (it’s addictively awesome during the lavish “Bruce” showstopper).
Warchus, finding Pride cinematographer Tat Radcliffe to show a heightened sense of visual playfulness that suits the source material perfectly. On Pride, Warchus, and Radcliffe delivered a serious, earthy, no-frills tone that let Stephen Beresford’s script speak for itself. Here – soaring shots, zooms and whirling whips are on the menu – especially during the big ensemble numbers “School Song” (featuring some of Minchin’s alphabet-based lyrics) and “Revolting Children”.
If that sounds visually anarchic, it is – but Rob Howell’s familiar costumes (another Matilda alumnus of the stage) and Anna Lynch-Robinson – creating a cohesive palette of primary colors from the show’s technicolor opening number “Miracle” (delivered by Matt Hemley as the ebullient obstetrician) – retaining the heart of this which made the show so visually arresting.
Minchin’s tunes are mostly preserved (a few are left on the editing room floor) and a new number, at the show’s climax, provides a much-needed duet between Matilda and her teacher-turned-protector Miss Honey – played in a low-key but touchingly rich performance by Lashana Lynch, who also does everything well in her solo number “My House.” Minchin, composer Chris Nightingale, and music supervisor Becky Bentham also give the show’s numbers a bit of a zhoosh-up — extra percussion in the opening number and a more ominous “Chokey Chant.”
Much has been made of the casting of Emma Thompson as the maniacal manager and enemy of Matilda, Miss Trunchbull (normally the role is given to a male actor, Ralph Fiennes even being courted), but the Nanny McPhee and love, in fact The star gives a brawny, shrewd performance – setting himself apart from the legendary Pam Ferris while nailing all the aggressive comedy that writer Dennis Kelly injects into every scene.
Much of the film depends, of course, on its titular performer – and Alisha Weir is truly a star find for the production. Completely different from the American Mara Wilson of the 90s film, Weir brings to her character an endearing melancholy and “wise beyond her years” approach: you really believe that she has browsed the works of Austen before the little lunch.
Kelly’s script makes the necessary cuts basically in order to keep the pacing tense, which means Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough’s abysmal parents have their screen time reduced from brief comedic interludes. Most of the team’s decisions are relatively sound – though the proceedings slip somewhat during a CGI-laden finale that feels more Marvel movie than Matilda. Nevertheless, it comes together in a conclusion that warms the hulls and will leave the audience sailing as if they had just been lobbed by their mats.
A slight tangent perhaps, but it’s worth saying what a celebration of British talent this film is – from the director, to the writer, to the legions of creators and on-screen talent of all ages. . Much of this could only happen if there was constant support from the state – helping education, institutions and more. If those in power needed more convincing that this is a sector in need of increased investment, here is a movie that teaches all the right lessons.
Matilda hits theaters in the UK and Ireland on Friday, November 25.