Producing work for children “is the most sacred work we ever have”, Emma Thompson has said ahead of the world film premiere of Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical.
The actor, who plays tyrannical headmistress Agatha Trunchbull in the latest adaptation of the popular children’s novel, told reporters at the opening of the London film festival that she grew up surrounded by the work of Dahl.
“I read all the time. I was bullied at school, and the books that really spoke to me were the ones where there was real darkness,” Thompson said. “You don’t want to sugarcoat it, but it can’t be too real. It’s got to be frightening, but you’ve got to be able to contain it and get thrilled by it.
“But children see everything. When we’re little, we can feel and see everything, and we know that there’s darkness out there and often we experience it when we’re little. I think making work for children is the most sacred work we ever have, and it has to be our best work, it has to be so good because they need to get the best of us as artists. Then they’ll take that as they grow older.”
Thompson’s father, Eric, wrote the 1960s animation series The Magic Roundabout. “It was supposed to be for children, and he said: ‘Why should I write something for children? They’re just people who haven’t been on the planet as long as us, why should we talk down to them?’,” the actor recalled.
In researching the role, Thompson said she examined the childhood of Dame Edith Sitwell. “[She was] tortured as a child, and I decided that Trunchbull was cruel to children because she couldn’t bear her own childhood. She couldn’t bear any vulnerability in children because when she’d been vulnerable she’d been crushed … and I think that’s where it comes from a lot of time, that kind of cruelty,” said Thompson.
She added that it was “absolutely bliss” to a play a character like that “because you can indulge in your inner demons and let them out to play”.
The musical – which also stars Alisha Weir as Matilda, Lashana Lynch as Miss Honey, Stephen Graham as Mr Wormwood and Sindhu Vee as Mrs Phelps – will be released by Netflix internationally after UK cinema distribution by Sony in late November. The streaming service bought the rights to Dahl’s works for £370m early last year.
Worldwide sales of Dahl’s 1988 novel about a young girl with telekinetic powers who battles her philistine parents and a hammer-tossing headmistress have topped 17m.
Matthew Warchus, director of the new filmand the acclaimed stage show on which it is based, said: “[Dahl] plays on exaggeration, which is a brilliant tool … you can take something which is horrible and exaggerate it, and it becomes manageable.”
Speaking about her role, Lynch said Miss Honey “allowed children to give their best self in the most organic and sweet way”. The actor, who made history as the first female and black 007, said the character had a host of her own vulnerabilities, and it was inspiring to see a black woman on screen “not be perfect … she just is”.
The 66th London film festival runs until 16 October when it closes with Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, starring Daniel Craig. In total, the festival will host 164 feature films, 24 of which are world premieres – with additional red carpet galas scheduled.
The festival director, Tricia Tuttle, said she opted to open and close with “joyous bits of cinema” that will leave the audience feeling “uplifted” in response to troubling recent world events. “Matilda for us was really important,” she said. “It’s a great British story, but it’s also a really joyous story about underdogs getting their own back, and it’s a great female-centred story as well, that felt very special.”
Tuttle, who announced this week that she will be stepping down as BFI festivals director, also said she wanted LFF to help “reinvigorate” the film industry, which has suffered a huge knock following the pandemic.