Movie review: Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical

(courtesy IMP Awards)

There’s something enormously energising about watching a thoroughly in-love-with-life musical.

For a few brief hours, you are taken from a world in which disappointments are legion, pain is manifest and hope, joy and justice must fight for limited space, into one where things may look bleak for a time but where they are always resolve in the kind of heart affirming way for which you wish life had just had a more generosity of accommodation.

Musicals that fit this mold are many but there can be few washing through the modern zeitgeist with such vim and vigour as Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical, a cinematic adaptation of the 2011 musical extravaganza by Matthew Warchus, Dennis Kelly with songs by Australia’s Tim Minchin, which fairly bursts with a sense that goods things this way will eventually come.

Based on the 1988 book by Roald Dahl which tells the story of a plucky, young genius-level brilliant girl whose morally and intellectually-challenged parents can’t stand her and whose only real allies are her teacher Miss Honey and mobile librarian Mrs Phelps, Matilda the Musical is an unbridled effervescent joy that nevertheless is grounded in its honesty about the harsh unfairness and uncertainties of life.

For all her gifts and goodness of heart, Matilda, who believes in fairness, justice and who cannot abide bullying of any kind (not surprising given the way she is treated by her parents), certainly has a great deal stacked against her, even when she is given the chance to attend school for the first time.

While receiving an education is a gift of the highest order and most precious kind and one for which Matilda, played in the film by Alisha Weir with gusto and not a trace of precociousness thank the musical gods, and is the beginning of a rich and wonderful association with her teacher, and later guardian, Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch) whose suffered trials and tribulatiuons of her own, is takes place at the gothically intense nightmare that is Crunchem Hall, overseen by Miss Agatha Trunchbowl, played with ferocious mercilessness by Emma Thompson decked out in disco-meets-Soviet-border-guard couture.

Having self taught herself to a degree that is impressive given the multiple obstacles arrayed against her, Matilda hardly needs school to learn but she craves being away from her hateful parents, played by Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseboroughwith moronic hilarity and a bleak cruelty which is characteristic of Dahl’s storytelling which was magical and horrific all at once, and being part of a community beyond Mrs Phelps to whom she recounts wondrous tales of people beating the odds, sometimes finding happiness but all too often not.

Her story to Mrs Phelps, whose mobile library is a learning lifeline for Matilda and which ends up in some fantastically remote places where you’d think borrowers would be few and far between, matches Matilda’s own experiences through the film which are sometimes hopeful, often most definitely not, and which reflect a young girl doing her best to figure life out when so much of it seems out to get her.

Still, the moral of the story, and it’s damn good one full of light and dark, humour and sadness, is that Matilda has an unshakable moral compass that sees her stand up to the Miss Trunchbowl, something no one has ever done before, beginning a revolution which transforms everyone for the better bar the viciously comic villain of the piece whose comeuppance is assured but gleefully entertaining when it arrives nonetheless.

Being a musical now of course means that much of the action takes place in song and grand big set pieces, none of which come close to even remotely disappointing with a vivacity and intensity that grips you from the moment they start until they come to an end.

Each and every song by Minchin delights with sharply-intentioned lyrical power and a melodic rush that sees you itching to get up out of your seat and join the talented collection of children and adults in their gloriously evocative numbers.

“When I Grow Up” featuring the school children, Miss Honey and Matilda, and “Revolting Children” featuring Bruce Bogtrotter (Charlie Hodson-Prior), Hortensia (Meesha Garbett) and many of Matilda’s schoolmates, are two of the numbers that really leave a mark, redolent with the darkness of the eponymous protagonist’s predicament but also with the spirit that sees her power her way, often with great vulnerability and copious setbacks, to the kind of final act triumph that we know awaits in a musical that celebrates the fact that love actually does win out, especially when its backed by integrity and honest, kindly humanity.

One of the most pleasing aspects of the musical in general and the film in particular is that it keeps Dahl’s balance between life’s often unyielding awfulness and Matilda’s willingness to fight to make it better even when she’s not entirely sure she will succeed in her endeavour, beautifully and heartwarmingly intact.

We are left in in doubt at many points that there are terrible people in the world but while they are represented with an unstinting honesty that chills you to the core with the fact that there are people out there capable of such unthinking, unfeeling atrocities against people they are supposed to love, they are leavened by a comical approach that plays up how pathetic an excuse for humanity they are.

Matilda the Musical benefits from its sensible adherence to Dahl’s storytelling modus operandi which uses satire and raw truthfulness to depict how desperately awful the predicaments are in which protagonists like Matilda find themselves.

Dahl is so willing to tell it is, so committed to his depiction of the Dickensian horrors that humanity is regrettably capable of visiting on itself, that you could be forgiven, yes even in a musical as buoyantly hopeful as Matilda the Musical often is, for wondering if someone like Matilda can triumph against overwhelmingly considerable odds.

Everything about the musical says that’s precisely what will happen but so artfully written is the musical, and thus the film, that the terrible things feel truly TERRIBLE, and the happy-ever-after outcome when it does arrive, first in degrees and then in a revolutionary torrent that sees status torn down and balloons and colour replace greyness and cruelly admonishing posters, feels so upliftingly WONDERFUL.

Armed with characters, both good and bad, who surge off the screen with vivaciousness humanity, songs which soar and sink into the chasm depending on the moment but which always make you feel something profound, and a story that sticks the landing tonally and narratively at every turn with flawless perfection, Matilda the Musical is an unalloyed joy and pleasure to watch, an affirmation that yes life can be thoroughly horrible but that it can be gloriously good and delightful too, with love more than able to handle, especially with great songs and a commitment to being good and full of integrity, anything that comes its formidably life-reshaping way.

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