Emma Thompson and Tim Minchin make a very tasty combination in this DayGlo movie musical for the London film festival’s opening gala – amusing, exhilarating and the tiniest bit exhausting. It’s based on the award-winning RSC stage version of Roald Dahl’s bestseller about Matilda, the clever, lonely little girl with secret X-Men-type superpowers, sent away to a horrible school run by a hideous disciplinarian called Miss Trunchbull, like a cross between a weapon and an attack dog.
Emma Thompson plays the appalling Trunchbull in heavy prosthetics, a former Olympic hammer thrower who hates kids, with shoulders like the arms of a discount sofa. And of course, the musical marvel Tim Minchin weaves his spell with barnstorming music and lyrics, perhaps especially in the opening School Song, in which the older pupils introduce Matilda to the horrors in store, by way of the alphabet, starting with “So you think you’re A-ble, / To survive this mess …” to “Just you wait for Phys-Z”. The gleefully sly comedy kindred spirits of Thompson and Minchin come together to form the film’s bedrock of naughtiness.
Miss Trunchbull has a fantastically huge and grim Soviet-style granite statue of herself in the school’s front courtyard, wielding the hammer, adorned with the slogan: No Snivelling. It’s a rule she enforces when meting out corporal punishment, at one stage remarking: “The ears of small boys do not come off, they just stretch.” And, of course, her own hammer-throwing skills are dusted off when she has to throw a girl over the perimeter wall after grabbing her by the pigtails and whirling her round her head. “Still got it!” she gasps, smugly, as the unfortunate child lands with a crash in some distant bushes.
Alisha Weir plays Matilda, the free-spirited bookish little girl with a precocious interest in Brontë and Dostoevsky (not Shakespeare, though, which is why she doesn’t remark on the Hamlet-resonance in her surname – Wormwood). She is bullied and neglected by her yucky parents, played with plenty of welly by Andrea Riseborough and Stephen Graham. They are a couple of ghastly nouveau-riche provincials who probably betray Roald Dahl’s snobbery, but who also surely inspired Harry Potter’s Muggle aunt and uncle, the Dursleys. The authorities are not impressed by the Wormwoods’ claim to be homeschooling Matilda and insist she goes away to a bizarre neo-Dickensian establishment called Crunchem Hall, subject to a reign of terror by headmistress (no gender-free nonsense about “principal” or “headteacher”) Miss Trunchbull. But there is also a gentle, enlightened teacher called Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch). She nurtures Matilda’s talent, but turns out to have an awful secret – revealed as Matilda liberates the school from the Trunchbull tyranny.
This musical, like Danny DeVito’s earlier film adaptation from 1996, sticks pretty much to the Dahl book, although this version creates an ingenious new dimension: some telepathy to go with Matilda’s telekinesis. Matilda’s own talent for composition and storytelling show her unearthly intuition. She starts inventing a story that magically absorbs Miss Honey’s own past.
Probably the most awful moment comes when a boy called Bruce Bogtrotter (Charlie Hodson-Prior) steals a smidgen of Miss Trunchbull’s chocolate cake and she punishes him by making him eat the whole thing in front of everyone. It’s a grotesque piece of bullying and shaming, which continues to haunt Matilda fans because, for all the story’s cartoony craziness – which the film plays up with its wacky colour schemes, Punch-and-Judy aesthetic and hard, flat lighting – this is very close to what a toxic teacher might actually do in real life. Matilda is a tangy bit of entertainment, served up with gusto. Like the Wotsits and the Curly-Wurly shown in various scenes, it’s pretty moreish.