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  • Writer's pictureMartin Cheney

Matilda the Musical


Danny DeVito's original 1996 adaptation of Roald Dahl's Matilda would be a contender for the title of Film I've Watched The Most Times, due in no small part to the frequent reruns amassed in my childhood. I adore it. I could quote the entire script to you with a moment's notice (NB: this is hyperbole, do not ask me to do this). Fifteen years later in 2011, Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly's adaptation became my first West End stage musical and I absolutely fell in love with it. I have always found Minchin's lyrics to be his most valuable and impressive asset and I remember audibly gasping at the reveal of the central gimmick of 'School Song', which I still maintain is one of the deftest uses of the English language in recent memory. News of Matthew Warchus' (director of the original stage production) film adaptation of the musical therefore felt deeply earned and almost necessary. However, despite fleeting moments of fun, I took no pleasure in discovering that it is ultimately a reminder that Minchin's masterpiece belongs on the stage.

One central issue with Warchus' vision is that he can't seem to decide whether he's filming a musical or filming a film, so the resultant tone is an uneven back-and-forth between dreamlike, staged sequences (which usually work — this is what he knows) and scenes of realism, which are clunky and cloying. Matilda indiscriminately breaks the fourth wall (especially in 'Naughty') but seems to be the only character to do it with any regularity, creating a disconnect with the other players who consequently seem stuck in a film, while Matilda exists in a musical. Another example is the opening, 'Miracle', which promises an approach that the rest of the film seems to forget ever mentioning until 'Bruce'. This fluctuation in tone likely won't bother everyone, but I was left with a pervasive feeling that it wasn't ever quite sure what it was trying to be. In trying to appease fans of the original film and the musical version, it has neglected those of us who are fans of both.

The film's most disastrous element (at least in the cinema where I viewed it) is its astoundingly poor vocal mix (I feel like one of those curmudgeons saying 'huh?' every 10 minutes in Tenet). Those unfamiliar with Minchin's exquisite patter won't have a hope of discerning most of it without subtitles (perhaps they assumed most people will watch it on Netflix, where this is a possibility). Even for someone who knows every word of the show, I found myself wincing (like squinting, but for your ears) trying to decipher the lyrics. The two most egregious examples are 'Miracle' and 'The Smell of Rebellion', which are arguably the show's two crowning achievements in terms of being masterclasses in rhyme. It is unforgivable.

I know, this isn't sounding like a 3-star review. I'm getting there.

Shortly before its release, a clip of Ellen Kane's choreography for 'Revolting Children' began doing the rounds on social media, heightening expectation for very good reason — Kane's work is superb. A natural continuation of her work on the stage musical, the film retains the sharp, angular and grungy choreography that made the original so iconic. However, choreography isn't much use without dancers, and the child ensemble absolutely rips, with complete commitment to every exaggerated shoulder pop and OTT facial expression. It's in these sequences that resemble a fully staged musical where the film starts to find its footing. I only wish it had maintained its balance throughout.

In terms of performances, they are all reasonably solid and interestingly seem to become more grounded over the course of the film, much like a stage actor might eventually settle from their nerves after a being welcomed by a receptive audience. Lashana Lynch's Miss Honey is far too sheepish and apologetic early on (yes, they're different films, but Embeth Davitz's original portrayal had a quiet strength about her that made her infinitely more interesting), but her performance of 'My House' is genuinely lovely. I am also grieved to report that Emma Thompson is inexplicably (and sadly) forgettable as the immense Miss Trunchbull, whose comically large boots Thompson just doesn't have the clout to fill. Minchin and Thompson's collaboration should be the stuff of legend, and it may well be on another project, but it isn't this one. She is neither intimidating nor especially funny.

The standout is Andrea Riseborough's utterly real and obnoxious turn as Mrs Wormwood and the film is all the poorer for underusing her (the decision to cut 'Loud' is a hate crime). Alisha Weir is as sincere and endearing as you could hope as the titular wunderkind — she perfectly avoids succumbing to precociousness in a role that very easily becomes unbearable in the wrong hands.

There is, of course, the obligatory Extra Song Written For The Film And Also For Your Consideration, Oscar Voters, 'Still Holding Your Hand'. On its own, it's quite beautiful (and may well act as a 'For Good' replacement for a new generation), although it's musically a little incongruous with the rest of the numbers. However, I'm a sucker for a lush string orchestration, so the tears trickled despite my qualms with the rest of the film — they have a life of their own. Christopher Nightingale's original score, incidental music and orchestrations breathe new life into Minchin's songs and are a highlight of the overall production. This film's rendering of 'When I Grow Up', the musical's best and most enduring song, is a joyful and heartwarming sequence that clawed me back from overall disappointment.

Film adaptations of stage musicals are tricky. They're forcing a fully established world into a medium it wasn't originally designed for. Successful examples are few and far between. All things considered, Matilda the Musical isn't one of them — everything it does right is owed to the source material. Luckily for Warchus, the source material is pure magic.


Matilda is in Australian cinemas now, and streams on Netflix from Christmas Day.

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