Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Jon Finn and Luke Kelly Director: Matthew Warchus Screenplay: Dennis Kelly Cast: Alisha Weir, Emma Thompson, Lashana Lynch, Stephen Graham, Andrea Riseborough, Sindhu Vee, Charlie Hodson-Prior, Meesha Garbett, Rei Yamauchi Fulker, Winter Jarrett Glasspool, Andrei Shen, Ashton Robertson, Carl Spencer, Lauren Alexandra, Katherine Kingsle and Amanda Lawrence Distributor: Netflix
Since its appearance in 1988 Roald Dahl’s children’s book has come to be regarded as a modern classic, but though critically well-received its screen adaptation—a 1996 Americanization by Danny DeVito that gleefully embraced its mordant tone—was less popular with audiences. It gets a sort-of second chance with this filmization of the smash musical by Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin based on the book that premiered in London in 2011 and is still playing there, and also enjoyed a nearly four-year run on Broadway.
Though directed by Matthew Warchus, who oversaw both the London and New York productions, it’s somewhat different, dropping a few songs and opening up the action. It also makes one major alteration in casting: the role of Agatha Trunchbull, the child-hating headmistress of Crunchem Hall, was played onstage by a man, but here is taken by Emma Thompson in prosthetics that rival Brendan Fraser’s fat suit in “The Whale.” But it preserves the mixture of drolly acerbic wit and sweet sentimentality that marked the piece on the boards.
Kelly’s book and screenplay follow the book with some omissions and alterations. The egregiously obnoxious parents of Matilda Wormwood (Alisha Weir)—sniveling grafter Harry (Stephen Graham) and his self-centered, money-grubbing wife (Andrea Riseborough)—never wanted a child and treat her with disdain, referring to her as “it.” The girl is nonetheless as smart as Sheldon Cooper, mastering high-level math and tackling tomes of prodigious length despite being entirely self-taught, the Wormwoods denigrating the very idea of reading and neglecting to send her to school. She’s made friends with travelling librarian Mrs. Phelps (Sindhu Vee) and responds to her parents’ mistreatment with pranks that give her at least a modicum of satisfaction.
When the authorities find out about Matilda’s lack of proper education, they insist she be sent to school, and Crunchem, which Trunchbull rules with the same restraint she showed as a hammer-throwing Olympic champion, would be intolerable without the presence of the appropriately named Jennifer Honey (Lashana Lynch), a meek teacher under the thumb of the headmistress but as supportive of Matilda’s ambitions as Mrs. Phelps, to whom the girl, suddenly inspired as a teller of tales, relates, in a succession of chapters abruptly ended, a story about two circus performers, an escapologist (Carl Spencer) and an acrobat (Lauren Alexandra) that, it will be revealed, is not purely fictional.
She also takes the lead in fomenting rebellion among her cowed classmates against Trunchbull, whose contempt for the “worms” and “maggots” in her charge leads to punishments both violent (grabbing one girl’s pigtails to swing her like a discus and throw her over a fence, or literally stretching a boy’s ears) and cruelly imaginative (locking a supposed malefactor in a chamber, or forcing a boy who’s filched a piece of chocolate cake to eat the whole enormous thing). The appearance of telekinetic power in Matilda’s arsenal will prove the crowning touch in the inevitable overthrow of the tyrant and the liberation of good-natured Honey.
All of which leaves one matter unresolved: Matilda’s Dickensian home life, which becomes a most pressing issue when her parents must suddenly flee town after her father engages in one con too many. Will their daughter have to go with them? Or will an alternative present itself?
Dahl purists may decry the softening of the book’s darkest elements and the insertion of songs—rousing ensembles for the kids, solo numbers for Matilda (mischievously assertive), Trunchbull (manically nasty) and Honey (endearingly soulful)—and even those who appreciate the changes might find the use of CGI-laden effects a bit excessive. But the cleverness of Minchin’s lyrics compensate for the occasional blandness of his melodies, and though the visuals sometimes might strike you as garish, the contrasts of brightness and gloom in the work of Christian Huband and David Hindle (production design), Rob Howell (costumes) and cinematography (Tat Radcliffe) are often eye-popping. One also has to compliment Ellen Kane’s energetic choreography, and the editing by Melanie Oliver that allows you to enjoy it to the full.
And the performances are all spot-on. Weir captures both Matilda’s quiet side and her rambunctiousness, and proves equal to the vocal as well as the physical demands, while Lynch leaves behind the kick-ass persona of “No Time to Die” and “The Woman King” to show her sweeter side and Vee also comes across as an oasis of compassion. Though encased in the makeup designed by Sharon Martin and Naomi Donne, Thompson obviously relishes the opportunity to play a wicked witch in most malevolent mode, and Riseborough and Graham are no less extravagant as the hilariously odious Wormwoods. Matt Henry joins with the goofy couple as a doctor in the exuberantly colorful opening sequence of Matilda’s unexpected birth.
There will be some dissatisfied with the clumsily-titled film, released to theatres in the UK (via Sony/TriStar) and briefly in the US before its Christmas premiere on Netflix, for not being completely faithful to Dahl. But the criticism is misplaced. It’s an adaptation not of the novel but of the West End musical, and Warchus has done an exceptional job of bringing the joy and sentiment of the lauded stage production to the screen without slighting the book’s macabre sensibility and its exaltation of children’s rebellion in the face of adult cruelty. And comparisons aside, it’s just a lot of fun.