People often talk about the darkness in Roald Dahl’s children’s books – and it’s true, he doesn’t hold back on references to bullying, poverty, death, and the dangers of being addicted to chewing gum. What’s talked about less often, though, is how much the darkness is balanced by Dahl’s jovial, conversational tone, Quentin Blake’s cheery, scribbly drawings, and the warm, loving parental figures that their young characters invariably meet. These vital ingredients ensure that however scary Dahl’s stories can get, no one is going to be traumatised by them. The same can’t be said of the latest adaptation of his work, Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical, which premiered at the London Film Festival on Wednesday. As close to Stephen King as it is to Dahl, it’s only a couple of tweaks away from being the year’s most disturbing gothic horror movie.
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The musical, written by Dennis Kelly, with songs by Tim Minchin, was first staged in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2010, and has been running in London’s West End since 2011. Its original director was Matthew Warchus, and he directs the film, too, but he doesn’t make the common stage-to-screen mistake of recreating the live show moment by moment. Quite the opposite. He seems determined to make use of every cinematic technique possible, so he bombards the viewer with quick cuts, visual effects, elaborate stunts, complicated production numbers, countless locations, and – what the hell – a random giraffe.
Again, these painstaking visuals are preferable to a musical film in which the director simply points the camera at a stage for two hours. But it’s hard to settle into the story when you’re being battered by constant reminders that you’re watching a film rather than a play. To be fair, not all of the in-your-face intensity comes from Warchus’s direction. Thanks to some crafty restructuring by Kelly, there is nothing tangential or casual about the plotting. Every one of the novel’s key episodes has been intertwined, and every one of its quiet, thoughtful interludes has been removed. Minchin’s wordy songs have that relentlessness, too: they tend to convey more about how clever he is than they do about the characters’ feelings. But, even accounting for the musical’s book and music, it does feel as if Warchus has made every aspect of the production as full-on as possible – and that includes the nastiness.
It’s there at the start when we meet Matilda’s uncaring parents, the Wormwoods, played by Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough. In some ways, Dahl’s writing has been updated for today’s sensibilities, hence the racially diverse cast, including Lashana Lynch as the kindly Miss Honey. But that updating hasn’t extended as far as the film’s attitude towards the working class. The Wormwoods are even more tasteless and stupid than they were in the novel, and Riseborough’s gurning caricature of a bottle-blonde common-as-muck harridan is too condescending to be funny. The most striking difference between the Wormwoods and their daughter isn’t that she is a once-in-a-century genius with latent telekinetic powers, but that she sounds middle class and they don’t.
The nastiness intensifies when Matilda (Alisha Weir) arrives at Crunchem Hall, the forbidding, prison-like, yet weirdly popular school run by the sadistic Miss Trunchbull. (It’s understandable that the Wormwoods don’t care that their daughter’s education is overseen by a psychopath, but it’s odd that hundreds of other local parents go along with it.) The film then becomes a remake of The Great Escape in which the Nazi officers are replaced by Frankenstein’s monster. Skilfully played by Emma Thompson under a tonne of seamless prosthetic make-up, Trunchbull is both horribly evil and strangely pathetic. What she isn’t, for most of the film, is any fun. As for Matilda, she isn’t the modest, studious girl from Dahl’s novel, but a scowling, defiant, hands-on-hips rebel from day one. Weir is well cast as the firebrand revolutionary, but her intense glare is a bit too intense. By the end of the film, I was more frightened of her than I was of Trunchbull.
Some of the nastiness is delicious. The signs around the school saying, “None of You Are Special” and “You Are All Maggots” raise a smile, as do Matilda’s lovably upbeat classmates. But it is extraordinary how melodramatic and sinister the film’s second half gets. Did it really need quite so much anger and cruelty, so much splattering mud and drenching rain, and so many shots of people in tearful despair? Did Crunchem Hall’s pupils have to endure quite so much emotional scarring? I wish that Warchus had remembered what Matilda tells Miss Honey in the novel: “Children are not so serious as grown-ups and they love to laugh.”
Well, if they watch Matilda the Musical, they will laugh, but they may well scream and cry, too. Nervous youngsters should probably stick to the book or to Danny DeVito’s 1996 film of it. For that matter, so should nervous adults.