Tim Minchin's musical adaptation of Roald Dahl's beloved MATILDA is a phenomenal musical with a big heart and an incredibly talented cast, but this new film version would've benefited from a proper film director and about 20 minutes taking out of its middle section. The result is a film that is deeply affecting, and contains some stunning set pieces, but that seriously lags in the middle, and feels a bit too garish and visually disjointed to really work for an adult audience.
The story is likely familiar to you. Matilda (Alisha Weir) is an unwanted little girl, whose prodigious talent is unappreciated by her neglectful, criminal parents (Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough). When the school inspectors compel him, Matilda's father sends her to an horrific school called Crunch 'Em Hall run by the tyrannical Mrs Trunchbull. Matilda may be little but she's courageous and has a strong moral compass. At first Matilda channels her anger and frustration into a tragic love story that she recites to the travelling librarian Miss Phelps (Sindhu Vee). But finally, Matilda leads the children and oppressed teacher Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch) in a revolution, helped by her long experience of practical jokes against her dad.
As I said before, the musical numbers crafted by Tim Minchin are just fantastic and the choreography is kinetic. All of the kids in this massive ensemble cast do a wonderful job. The adults are great - I could see Emma Thompson being nominated for supporting actress gongs if only award shows valued comedy as much as they do dramatic roles. But the real surprise in the cast was Lashana Lynch as Miss Honey in a role that shows her range beyond the athletic action of a James Bond film.
The problem is just how BIG this film is visually. I remember reading an interview with Sam Mendes when he moved from theatre to film with AMERICAN BEAUTY and described having to reshoot the opening scenes because he hadn't realised he needed to modulate for the screen. I feel theatre director Matthew Warchus needed that same lesson. The opening number in a hospital was dayglo bright and so big and loud and cartoonish I was seriously worried. The movie did settle down a bit, but I couldn't help but wonder what would've happened if this was directed by someone who had the confidence to come up with a palette that leaned more into Dahl's gothic side, and also the confidence to cut some of the more repetitive numbers.
There's also a flaw in the book/musical/movie that there isn't actually any character development until the final 30 minutes. Matilda comes to us fully formed as bright and brave; Miss Honey is passive pretty much throughout; Miss Trunchbull and the parents are mean. No-one grows, no-one learns. We just move in circles.
MATILDA opened the BFI London Film Festival 2022 and opens in UK cinemas on November 25th before being streamed on Netflix on December 9th.