When the whistle blows in the dreaded playground of Crunchem Hall, children fall silent and rush to their seats. Just behind are Mrs. Trunchbull’s footsteps, riding crop in hand and ready to hunt the weak.
With Emma Thompson as Mrs Trunchbull, Lashana Lynch as Miss Honey and Stephen Graham as Mr Wormwood – alongside newcomer Alisha Weir as the heroine herself – this new Matilda is an adaptation of the beloved West End play, which has won dozens of awards worldwide since its launch in 2013.
It is the first film in an ambitious project for Netflix, which acquired the rights to Roald Dahl’s entire collection in 2019 for a staggering sum.
However, despite the big bill, Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical seems determined not to lose what made the stage production so special. Director Matthew Warchus and screenwriter Dennis Kelly primarily helped create the musical and were also behind the wheel of the adaptation.
“The hardest part was that if you adapt, you’re just adapting someone else’s work,” explains Kelly.
“You look at it, and if there are bits you like and bits you didn’t, you can say, ‘They’re an idiot. I’ll change that.’ If someone is modifying your work, and it [doesn’t] work, you can look at it and go, ‘What did that idiot do?’ But in this case I’m both idiots.”
“I found that a real challenge: adjusting your own stuff is really very difficult. But the opportunities were fantastic.”
Tim Minchin, who wrote the songs for the musical, came back to write a new offering for the on-screen version. Despite Minchin initially being reluctant to do so, Minchin eventually wrote a musical number to close out the film – something the original production lacked.
“I was afraid it would feel very different,” he says. “I wrote most of Matilda in a single six-week period, and I wrote this song in a day. I loved going back.
“I actually stole quite a bit from a song I lost, Miss Honey’s song that didn’t work when I first wrote it. I sent it to these guys [director Matthew Warchus and screenwriter Dennis Kelly]and pretty soon they came back and said, ‘Yeah, that’s the number.’”
Getting the chance to sing Minchin’s new work is Lashana Lynch, for whom the chance to play Miss Honey is quite a departure from her usual action movie fare.
“I was quite confused when I got the call,” she says. “I’ve just had a series of stunts and action, and fierceness. And I thought, ‘Well, I’m glad they trust me to do this level of softness, because I haven’t shown it yet.’”
There was another motivating factor for her appearance in the film.
“I also have my own Miss Honey from primary school that I looked up to,” she explains. “She was also a black woman, who taught me how to sing, and told me how to be confident and be myself.”
Now, as an adult, Lynch gets a chance to spread that feeling himself. “I feel like I’m getting an almost spiritual opportunity to give to my childhood what I didn’t get as a kid, which is incredible.”
Lynch wasn’t the only person who found real life an inspiration for their character. For Stephen Graham, who plays Mr Wormwood, the role didn’t come naturally.
“When I heard that Matthew wanted me to play the part, I was like, ‘I’m an avid social realist,’” explains Graham.
“We played with it a lot and we wanted to keep that essence of reality and play from a place of truth because as an artist that’s all we have.” That even extended to taking inspiration from BBC documentaries about snooker players.
“It was in the 70’s when they all smoked… I looked and… [one of the players] had a gold watch and a bracelet on the same hand. I went, ‘Wow!’ We took that idea.”
Of course, realism only goes so far when you include green hair, magical powers and Mrs. Trunchbull in the equation – and Emma Thompson in particular had to put in a lot of work to turn into the dreaded headmistress of Crunchem Hall.
These include antique diving boots, sourced from the film’s costume designer, as well as the infamous thick suit with a “little greasy feel” and a “the belt with all these horrible tools on it.”
“It took six people every morning to get that woman on set: six people, three hours. And I was just one of them,” says Thompson, before confiding that she based her interpretation of The Trunchbull on the tormented childhood of Dame Edith Sitwell.
“[Sitwell was] tortured as a child, and I decided Trunchbull was cruel to children because she couldn’t bear her own childhood. She couldn’t bear any vulnerability in children because when she was vulnerable she was crushed… I think that’s often where it comes from, that kind of cruelty.’
Of course, Matilda Matilda is not without the heroine in question – and Alisha Weir fills those shoes beautifully.
Although she is considerably younger than many of her co-stars, the rest of the cast is only 13 years old and full of praise for her.
“Alisa is excellent. She is absolutely outstanding,” says Graham. “She also had a great way of bringing the truth into her performance… we have really great little moments between the two of us.
“She’s a shark when it comes to Uno, but it was just a delight.”
A deep love for Dahl runs through all the actors on stage: In addition to Lynch, whose real life Miss Honey was the inspiration for her character, Sindhu Vee and Thompson also have memories of finding an escape in books as children – just like Matilda herself. .
“I was bullied at school and read all the time,” Thompson says. “The books that really appealed to me were the ones where there was real darkness… and you don’t want to just cover it up.
“I think creating work for children is the most sacred work we have,” she concludes.
“And it has to be our best work. It must be so good. Because they need to get the best out of us as artists. Then they take that with them as they get older.”
If the movie is anything like the stage adaptation, Netflix is sure to have a hit on their hands. Just don’t mention the Chokey.
Matilda The Musical by Roald Dahl opens the BFI London Film Festival tonight. It will be released in UK and Ireland cinemas on November 25