Audiences will love this visit to Crunchem Hall as a much-loved book gets the movie/musical treatment
While the words “musical theatre” fill me with a certain dread, I was pleasantly surprised by the wit and energy of Matilda, a film adaptation of the West End musical, itself adapted from the story by Roald Dahl.
The great man’s snark and subversion are very much to the fore in this cheerful and amusing romp directed by Matthew Warchus, who co-created the stage show.
Matilda Wormwood (Alisha Weir) is a bit of a prodigy. Only nine years of age (she was five in Dahl’s book), she ploughs her way cheerfully through Moby Dick and Great Expectations, and can do algebra in her sleep.
The titular role was landed by newcomer and Knocklyon native, 13-year-old Alisha Weir.
Weir originally auditioned for the life-changing part over Zoom due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Once it was safe to travel she eventually got her chance to audition in person and two weeks later she got the phone call telling her the part was hers.
“We got the call on my mum’s birthday to say that I got the role of Matilda”, the actor told the Sunday World at a VIP screening of the movie in Dundrum earlier this month.
She added that her favourite part of filming was meeting the rest of the cast and crew. “Because I was coming over from Ireland I got to meet loads of new friends that I’m still friends with today, and also meeting all the amazing actors and actresses. Especially looking up to them, all like the main cast, just looking up to them, because I had grown up seeing them in all these movies and then actually to be in a movie with them in my first ever big film was really crazy.”
The new film sees Weir in her first big role play opposite big names like Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough.
Graham and Riseborough play Matilda’s ghastly parents, who make Matilda sleep in the attic and refer to their child as “him” rather than “her” for reasons that remain obscure, and refer to her as “a total freak.” (Matilda gets her own back, dying her dad’s hair green and glueing his homburg hat to his head.)
But Matilda faces a different challenge when she’s sent to Crunchem Hall, an elementary school that hope has abandoned. “None of you are special!” insists a banner in the hall of the school, which is run with pitiless efficiency by Agatha Trunchbull (Emma Thompson), a former champion hammer thrower with the personality of a Tasmanian Devil.
Realising Matilda’s gifts, her kindly teacher Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch) asks Trunchbull if the girl can be moved to a higher class. But the headmistress, who hates clever clogs, or talent of any kind, instead sets out to crush the girl, who will prove remarkably resourceful.
Thompson throws herself wholeheartedly into this least glamorous of roles, pounding about the place in Frankenstein boots and hammer-throwing one unfortunate child into the next field by her pigtails. The temptation to retrospectively “clean up” Dahl’s story is largely resisted, and the tone struck is agreeably cartoonish, only jokingly cruel.
The songs mostly hit the spot, and the film’s mood is midway between Annie and the 1970 musical Oliver! Lynch, most recently seen as a Bond assassin and an Amazonian warrior, shows her range playing the sweet and passive Miss Honey. Weir is a revelation as Matilda, singing, dancing and acting her way through this busy film with great conviction. She has talent to burn.
Rating: Four stars
Matilda The Musical is released in cinemas nationwide this Friday, November 25 and will be available on Netflix next summer.