Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty

In which I review the recent film release Matilda: The Musical and talk about how it captures the spirit and character of the book so well, with the added bonus of some great songs.

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I’ve not seen the stage show, so am not certain how much is due to the musical and what has changed in the film adaptation. Clearly the songs by Tim Minchin are in both, while the specific performances by actors are due to the latter – but that doesn’t really matter.

At the most basic level, Matilda succeeds because it has some fantastic and catchy songs which in turn are clever (The School Song), up-beat (Revolting Children) and have pathos (When I grow up); or, my daughter (aged 4)’s favourite, a bit of all of these (Naughty). The opening hospital montage (Miracle) does a wonderful job of capturing the opening pages of the novel, which explain that the problem with most parents is that they think their child is wonderful even if they are a revolting little toerag, but that Matilda’s parents were much worse, as they were the opposite.

The film continues in that spirit of faithfulness, with almost every key moment from the book (Bruce Bogtrotter and the cake, most of Matilda’s pranks on her parents, her reading, Amanda Thripp and the pigtails and so on) played wonderfully, with the perfect feeling of Matilda’s home and the school conjured up at each stage. The ending is reasonably faithful to the book, with the key moment being Matilda using her powers to write a message from ‘Magnus’ on the board that terrifies Miss Trunchbull – though, like the previous film, they feel the need to make her telekinesis significantly more powerful than it is in the book. The scene works on its own merits and maybe the more pyschological approach in the book just doesn’t work on screen (particularly in a film which, like the book, has until that point had so much over-the-top, physical humour and pranks).

What really makes the film excel, however, is the performance of the three main actresses playing Matilda, Miss Honey and Miss Trunchbull. The other characters are also all pitch-perfect – Matilda’s parents, Bruce, Hortensia and so on – put the three main parts are what elevates it, as their roles rightly dominate the film.

Matilda (Alisha Weir) herself is the simplest part to describe. She looks about 8 or 9, not 5 (evidently is actually 13, but is only 4’2″) but that’s fine because a 5 year old – or even an 8 year old – would be unable to carry off such a demanding role (including the singing!) and so it’s an easy suspension of disbelief. She gets Matilda just right: sweet, kind, precocious but also determined, determined to get even rather than give in when she knows she’s in the right and completely irrepressible. It is a brilliant performance.

More interesting, in many ways, are Miss Honey and Miss Trunchbull.

Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch) is a fascinating character in the book. When one first reads it as a child, she comes across as perfect: wonderful, kind and everything that Matilda hasn’t previously known in an adult. And of course that’s true. But as you read it when you’re a little bit older, you realise that she’s also a bit useless, completely cowed by Miss Trunchbull and unable to protect the children in her care (or even herself) from the fearsome headmistress. Her only resistance is to have escaped(1). Yes, her role is vital: she comforts, reassures and encourages Matilda – and, at the end, her intervention is vital to prevent Matilda being taken off to Spain with her parents – but it is Matilda who is the one determined to resist, and it is through Matilda’s determination – not just her powers that the Trunchbull is vanquished.

Lynch pulls this off this difficult balance brilliantly. She is lovely and kind, loved by her class and a brilliant teacher, but her ineffectual flapping at the side when Miss Trunchbull is terrorising the children is perfect in demonstrating her helplessness. She’s supported in this by script and lyrics, in particular, when she suddenly, and poignantly, gets the line at the end of When I grow up (heretofore entirely sung by children), “When I grow up I will be brave enough to fight the creatures That you have to fight beneath the bed Each night to be a grown-up.” The contrast to Matilda (“Just because you find that life’s not fair/It doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it…Nobody else is gonna put it right for me/Nobody but me is gonna change my story/Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty”) is stark, throughout: in many ways, she acts as a warning – she is what will happen if Matilda loses – and you can sympathise with, like and feel sorry for her all at the same time.

Miss Trunchbull (Emma Thompson), on the other hand, pulls off a different trick which is to make a larger-than-life, over-the-top and – if we’re honest – completely implausible character seem horribly, terrifyingly, half-plausible without either losing any of the crazy things she does or descending into unnecessary and out-of-genre realism. The psychological side of why she is as she is is explored well in her introductory song, The Hammer as well as The Smell of Rebellion, without labouring it, but this does help to make one feel there is some warped method in her madness (and has the added bonus of children singing angelically ‘Bambinatum est magitum’ (children are maggots)). But largely it is done just by playing the character as if one could never for a moment doubt that it’s possible for a headmistress to pick a child up by their pigtails and whirl them over the school fence. That’s the principle on which most of Dahl works, and it works here too.

I think the most questionable decision for me was to significantly increase the role of Mrs Phelps. It’s not that she’s not a good character – she is – or even that it’s against canon (we never really get much of a sense of how much she speaks to Matilda in the books, but there’s definitely no sense that it is as close as portrayed here), but that it diminishes the significance of Miss Honey. If Matilda already has a kindly adult as a close friend – in the film it’s shown as close enough to spend significant time with even outside library hours – then Miss Honey’s role as the first adult to really be actively kind and caring to Matilda diminishes. It doesn’t spoil the film by any means, and the scenes with her in are good ones, but I do think it was a mild mistake.

In terms of other changes, showing Miss Trunchbull taking the class for phys. ed. (and putting the newt scene here) worked well on film – especially as a great vehicle for the song The smell of rebellion. I can see why they chose to have Matilda tell the story of Miss Honey throughout the film (avoiding lots of exposition near the end) and – much as I want to cast shade on it – I have to admit the decision to have Miss Honey’s parents being circus performers instead of a doctor and [not revealed] worked on its own merits, bizarre though it seems. This ties into the Miss Phelps point, of course, as it’s to her that Matilda recounts the story. My son was aggrieved by the omission of Matilda’s brother: I thought that was a perfectly acceptable simplification, but I can see why, for him, omitting an older brother isn’t something to approve of!

Overall, a thoroughly good musical, which I’d whole-heartedly recommend.

As a reminder, we are still in Advent so the Christmas Quiz is still live! Christmas Quiz XVII is science themed and can be downloaded here.

(1) From an entirely realistic point of view, someone who was brought up by a horribly abusive relative who had murdered her father would be doing pretty well just to have escaped, but that still doesn’t change the fact that, in the story, she is helpless before Miss Trunchbull, while Matilda isn’t.