Miss Honey makes millennials wistful. She was, for many of us, our formative film crush. Embeth Davidtz’s performance, in Danny DeVito’s big-hearted 1996 Matilda adaptation, made us wonder why we couldn’t all be respected as child geniuses by a kindly teacher. As I watched Lashana Lynch play the part for a new generation, I imagined Gen Alpha in 20 years’ time, reflecting fondly on how she – and her wardrobe of sundresses and cardigans – marked the very 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 surpass DeVito’s version; it’s content to sit beside it. There’s no attempt to improve on the Tony-winning stage adaptation’s source material, written by Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly; it only wants to translate its spirit faithfully. Realistically, I can’t imagine any other way it could work. There’s too much history and too much childhood nostalgia from the book, film, and subsequent musical weighted onto each beat of the story. The Matilda we get here, then – formally titled Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical – is a frothy, whimsical delight that encompasses every expectation we were bound to have already placed on it. It’s intrinsically British enough that I half expect it to be soon absorbed into the Paddington cinematic universe.
For anyone who didn’t grow up on a bedtime diet of Dahl books, Matilda tells the story of a pint-sized genius (Alisha Weir’s Matilda Wormwood) despised by her own parents (Andrea Riseborough and Stephen Graham). Her mother calls her a “good case for population control”; her father calls her “a troublemaking goblin”. They simply can’t conceive of a girl who wants to spend her days reading books and writing stories, instead of languishing in front of a television set like them. When they finally, reluctantly, enrol her into a school, she’s met with the best and worst of adulthood: her sweet-natured teacher Miss Honey and the tyrannical head Miss Trunchbull (Emma Thompson). She is nurtured by one, terrorised by the other – both of which help Matilda grow in courage, intellect, and (as she discovers) telekinetic superpowers.
Director Matthew Warchus, who is the Old Vic’s artistic director and led the original stage production, has a welcome confidence in his young cast. This is the rare musical that actually allows its performances room to breathe. There’s an inherent theatricality in the staging and a complexity in the choreography: lunch tables are dramatically pulled away so that the students have room to leap, pirouette, and stomp with wild abandon. There are disco-inflected choirs and Busby Berkeley-style top shots of circling dancers. And, boy, are these kids talented – to the degree that they retroactively made me feel ashamed of my own useless childhood. Weir, who’s perfectly cast, invests equally in Matilda’s mischief as she does her loneliness.
As might be expected from what is essentially a family musical, the film does not interrogate Dahl’s novel, despite the fact that there are grounds for questions. As Matilda’s mean parents, Riseborough and Graham are a farcical delight to watch - but they’re the only characters coded as working class, and the only characters represented as having an active disdain towards literature and education. Thompson has many of the film’s best lines (“he should have thought of that before he made a pact with Satan and stole my cake”, for example), even if her performance is occasionally lost beneath all the prosthetics. But the fact the evil Miss Trunchbull is represented as masculine and athletic, while the good Miss Honey is feminine and maternal, hardly feels like the right message to send to young girls.
But these are Dahl’s views, littered throughout his work, and are so embedded into Matilda that it’s fairly impossible to extricate them and still be left with the same, recognisable story. It’s a question of what we’re willing to put up with in order to appreciate the very best of his legacy – the trust he always had in his young audience’s intelligence, agency, and emotional maturity, and the liberating concept that parents don’t always know best. When the film’s catchiest, bounciest track, “Revolting Children” kicks off, that youthful spirit of rebellion starts to feel awfully infectious.
Dir: Matthew Warchus. Starring: Alisha Weir, Emma Thompson, Lashana Lynch, Stephen Graham, Andrea Riseborough. Cert PG, 117 minutes
‘Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical’ is in cinemas from 25 November