In keeping with its well-read young heroine, Roald Dahl’s novel Matilda felt like a library squeezed into one bulging volume.
His last major work, published two years before his death in 1988, is a rousing tale of a brilliant little girl thwarting some legendarily awful grown-ups. One minute it’s a skin-prickling horror story, like Stephen King’s Carrie for pre-teens; the next it’s an English classroom satire in the tradition of Ronald Searle. Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin converted it into a stage musical 12 years ago, and made Matilda a gifted storyteller – and thus their show became a parable about self-expression too.
Matthew Warchus’s screen adaptation of that show, which opened the London Film Festival last night, has somehow streamlined it to just under two hours without blunting its poison-tips. A handful of songs have been cut, as well as a few minor characters. Matilda Wormwood (played with boundless energy by 13-year-old Alisha Weir) is now an only child, for instance – her bland elder brother, Mikey, is gone – though her dim-witted parents (Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough) still loathe her as fervently as ever. The setting is a gaudily ramped-up 1980s, and the Wormwood family home is a quantum singularity of period chintz: shag pile adorns the floating staircase, while shelves are lined with porcelain figurines.
At the other end of a wooded lane, meanwhile, lurks Crunchem Hall, a petrifying composite of Grange Hill during the Mr Bronson years and Shawshank State Prison; it’s the seat of Agatha Trunchbull, its monstrous headmistress. Emma Thompson’s performance as this all-time-great villain is a masterclass in caricature. The laser-like glare, the unstoppable bosom-first stride, the one eye that twitches uncontrollably at moments of high tension – every gesture and line delivery feels honed to elicit as many shivers as belly laughs.
“I just taught them kindness, patience and respect,” the kind Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch) meekly protests during a Trunchbull meltdown. “How dare you bring those words into my classroom,” Thompson spits.
Minchin’s perky musical numbers are all performed with due wit and welly. The opener, Miracle, begins modestly, with novice parents doting and cooing over their cot-bound newborns, but blossoms into an extravagant Busby Berkeley production number, with birds-eye shots of hospital staff twirling in sequin-stitched scrubs. Matilda’s own signature song, Naughty, still kicks irresistibly with mischief, but When I Grow Up is the stealth heartbreaker, as her classmates daydream themselves into future careers – bus driver, motorcyclist, Red Arrows pilot – in a sequence that skewers exactly what’s so moving about the show’s core celebration of childhood promise.
In bringing the story out of the theatre, Warchus and his art department have also scaled up the narrative in all kinds of inspired ways. The Trunchbull’s gymnastics class, for instance, now takes place not indoors but on a rain-lashed assault course, complete with landmines. And in a fantastical climax that has Matilda telekinetically manipulating much more than a lone stick of chalk against the headmistress, the additional CG dazzle feels justified.
Besides, the performances are big enough to balance it. While Thompson gets the lion’s share of show-stopping moments, every casting decision is shrewd. Lynch’s Miss Honey (who stands up for Matilda, and vice versa) is warmth and goodness personified, and Graham and Riseborough’s Mr and Mrs Wormwood are both uproarious nightmares. Just take a shot of the latter reclining in an armchair in a leopard-print blouse while scoffing Terry’s All Gold from the box. Like Dahl’s book, everything in this film, from tenderness to terror, is so exuberant.
PG cert, 117 min. Screening at the London Film Festival. In UK cinemas from November 25 and on Netflix from December 25