66th BFI London Film Festival Diary – Day One – Roald Dahl’s Matilda: The Musical, The Eternal Daughter, Corsage

The first day of LFF2022 finds two women and a young girl on a journey of self-actualization with Roald Dahl’s Matilda: The Musical, Joanna Hogg’s gothic drama The Eternal Daughter, and period drama, Corsage, featuring an award-winning turn from Vicky Krieps.

Roald Dahl’s Matilda: The Musical (dir. Matthew Warchus)

The hit stage musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s famous novel gets it inevitable cinematic outing, featuring a star-making turn from Alisha Weir as the titular heroine. She is supported by a clutch of British veterans of the stage and screen to bolster the film’s bona fides, with everyone belting out the lyrics to Tim Minchin’s catchy numbers with gusto. Yet, something feels a little off about this sure-fire crowd pleaser, that might have more to do with the current state of movie musicals than with the film itself.

Born to unloving parents and kept in the attic out of sight, young Matilda (Alisha Weir) is a child genius unappreciated in her time. Forced to go to a school that is run like a prison camp by the fascistic Ms Trunchbull (Emma Thompson in ugly, monstrous make-up and problematic fat suit), Matilda comes to realise she has the power to stand up to the bullies in her life and decides to take matters into her own hands to lift herself up and those around her, in more ways than one.

Alisha Weir is terrific as Matilda; appearing in almost every scene it is a lot to ask of someone so young, but she takes on the responsibility of the lead role with energy and enthusiasm. Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough as her parents provide campy supportive turns, while Lashana Lynch as Miss Honey is pure sweetness and light, the one person in the world to which Matilda can aspire. Emma Thompson is also very good as the film’s heel, portraying an otherwise pantomime villain with shades of pathos.

The music by Tim Minchin is reliably catchy, with lyrics that are unexpected and inspirational. Standout song “Naughty” has Matilda exploring her house in secret while discovering she has her own agency, while the finale song “Revolting Children” shows Matilda’s influence on the school reaching a fist-pumping apotheosis. The songs intertwine well with Dennis Kelly’s sharp script which pushes the story along with enough momentum to keep it from being filler between the set-pieces.

Yet, with all this talent on display there is something that doesn’t quite come together with this adaptation. Perhaps director Warchus, who directed the stage version, can’t muster the same attention he gives the choreography toward the elements that the cinematic form demands. There is also a feeling that Dahl’s darker edges have been rounded off to widen its appeal, despite his blackly comic sense of humour being one of the most enduring traits of his work. It all feels very stagey to the point where it might have been preferable to see a filmed version of the original musical rather than try to turn it into a film.

However, there may be something else at play here. There seems to be a flattening of style with movie musicals to the point where they become nothing more than delivery systems for songs, without a sense of trying to use the language of cinema to make it something more than the sum of its parts. In a landscape where movies are being turned into musicals then back into movies, it’s a reflection of pop culture’s retreat into pure nostalgia to the point of avoiding exploration into anything new. For fans of the stage version, Roald Dahl’s Matilda: The Musical will be a welcome confection, but one wonders if the filmmakers should have taken a page out of Matilda’s book and tried to be just little bit naughty.

The Eternal Daughter (dir. Joanna Hogg)

Fresh on the heels of The Souvenir Part II, writer/director Joanna Hogg delivers a chilling, ghostly drama that uses the language of classic horror films to delve deep into the relationship between a mother and daughter, exploring how the past and the present can be become reflections of the other as memories are unearthed and secrets are revealed.

A mother and daughter (both played by Tilda Swinton) arrive by white cab to a stately manor in a mist shrouded forest. The manor is a hotel and the two women have arrived for a quiet holiday, but quickly learn they may be the only occupants. The daughter also has another motive; she hopes to start writing a screenplay about her relationship with her mother, but she has trouble getting started due to the strange noises she keeps hearing and the ghostly apparition that appears in a window at night. Is the daughter being haunted by ghosts in the hotel or by her own relationship with her mother, who’s memories of the manor uncover hitherto unknown revelations about her past?

This familial drama takes place in very limited locations throughout the hotel, namely their suite and the restaurant, while outside, an ominous fog creeps through the trees and across the moors, a pall hanging over every moment of the film. Hogg expertly employs the style and aesthetic of British horror films (most notably those from Hammer Studios) to add an extra dimension of isolation and fear and renders this claustrophobic two-hander as a gothic melodrama, and it works brilliantly.

Swinton handles double acting duty with the quiet grace we have come to expect from her, both characters clearly defined in relation to each other. Hogg shoots each one separately and edits their conversations back and forth without showing a scene where they share the same frame. While this seems like a logistical decision at first, it ultimately creates an extra level of tension as we come to feel the distance between the two women even as they try to come closer together. This technique furthers the hauntological aspects of the story as each character deals with the ghosts of their own past; the mother lived in the manor as a child during the Blitz, a time of innocence on her part but also of great sadness, while the daughter is filled with regret over the choices she didn’t make with her life due to her devotion to her mother.

An expertly realised chamber piece with gothic overtones, The Eternal Daughter once again finds Hogg looking back over her own life and pulling together the myriad emotions one feels for their family and toward their own past (the film can be considered to be part three of The Souvenir). But it also finds the filmmaker steeping herself in a very British genre space, showing her expertise at handling the tropes of horror in unexpected ways.

Corsage (dir. Marie Kreutzer)

A life of privilege is not all it’s cracked up to be for Empress Elisabeth of Austria, in Marie Kreutzer’s beautifully realised portrait of a lady on fire. As played by Vicky Krieps, in her Cannes award-winning performance, Elisabeth struggles against the bars of her gilded cage in search of her own identity away from the public eye.

It’s the late 19th century in Austria and Empress Elisabeth of the Hapsburg dynasty is turning 40. Her birthday brings both increased scrutiny about her looks and her weight from the lords and ladies at court, as well as her own growing restlessness as she re-evaluates her self-worth. Tired of the hypocrisy of royal duty and the gruelling physical demands on her appearance, she decides to kick against the patriarchy and forge her own path toward a more fulfilling life.

As Elisabeth, Vicky Krieps is terrific at showing the hidden depths to a woman who must live behind a façade. She succeeds mostly through body language, speaking volumes with her eyes and the slightest of movements through the restrictions of the corsets she must wear, which represent the way in which society has bound her to her role. As we watch Elisabeth’s independence grow, Krieps’s presence expands to touch the corners of the frame, even if it is just with a single look.

Additionally, each frame of the film is also comprised of a stunning mise-en-scene as the characters move from one sumptuous location to the next, the period styles and landscapes rendered beautifully by director Kreutzer and her cinematographer Judith Kaufmann. These sumptuous visuals are also wonderfully undercut with elements of the modern world that at first do not make themselves apparent until a second glance presents their enigmatic inclusion: a motorised tractor blocking a horse and carriage, women in 19th century dress aboard a modern cruise ship or a performer singing Marianne Faithful’s “As Tears Go By”. These elements suggest the themes at the heart of the film are sadly timeless, drawing parallels between Elisabeth’s struggle and those still faced by women today.

While not a straight re-telling of the life of Elisabeth (the film only takes place over the span of a year), Kreutzer and Krieps successfully present a portrait of a woman trapped by her circumstances, drawing parallels with the modern world in interesting ways to highlight how far society has come, but also how far it still has to go. The film, and Krieps’s stunning performance, expertly uncovers the woman’s traumas through elegant character moments that get to the heart of this woman, cutting deeper than any standard biography ever could.

Liam Dunn

Liam Dunn is an Australian writer living in London since 2013 where he has written film criticism for many different British outlets, including Little White Lies. Liam loves all kinds of cinema, particularly world cinema, but it is with horror, sci-fi and Westerns where you can find his heart. He reckons Werner Herzog is the world’s greatest living filmmaker and will fight anyone who says otherwise.

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