Friday, 2 May 2014

Matilda (1996)

"Are you being smart with me?"

I devoured all of Roald Dahl's children's books as a little boy but I must confess, dear reader, that I'm a little too old to have read this one. Still, it's Dahl to a tee: books and imagination are good, TV (see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and Gradgrindian adulthood are bad and there's plenty of kid-friendly grotesques of the kind all good Roald Dahl tales demand.

The film is directed, interestingly, by your actual Danny DeVito, who also plays Matilda's wilfully ignorant and ethically deficient father. Her alienated home life is eventually replaced by school, a British school, as apparently British schools are strict, one of those odd American stereotypes.

The biggest grotesque of the lot is headmistress Miss Trunchbull, who looks very kinky with her strict sexy uniform and riding crop, and who is rumoured to use several gloriously outré punishments which no parent would believe.

She is counterbalanced by the rather nice Miss Honey. I'm reminded at this point of an old sketch by The Mary Whitehouse Experience (remember them?) who pointed out that Charles Dickens called all his good characters names like "Mrs Lovely" and all his villains  names like "Mr Complete Bastard". Roald  Dahl is very Dickensian in that sense, gloriously and unapologetically so.

The film (and, I assume the book) is an impassioned cry for reading and learning and a furious cry against the sort of inverted snobbery against learning and culture that keeps the poor ignorant and powerless. The message is perfectly pitched to children in this furiously moral film. Matilda is a heroine for speaking out against the Trunchbull's cruelty, and soon sets out to investigate the truth behind her headmistress, typical Dahl protagonist that she is.

There's a happy ending, of course, with our telepathic heroine being adopted by that nice Miss Honey. I suspect the book has more life to it than the film, but this is a fun little adaptation.

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