Timothée Chalamet in Wonka. Image: Jaap Buittendijk
Sing it from the rooftops, Wonka is magic. If you see someone skipping down the high street in the next few weeks, it could be they’re feeling the spirit of Christmas coursing through their veins. But most likely, they’ve just seen Wonka at the pictures.
Timothée Chalamet is the very definition of charm as Willy Wonka, while Calah Lane is all heart as his new, young orphan pal Noodle. The supporting cast gathers the very best of British comedy talent – from Blackadder’s Rowan Atkinson to Peep Show’s Olivia Colman and Paterson Joseph and Ghosts’ Mathew Baynton and Simon Farnaby (who also co-wrote the film).
Every line of the script for the movie prequel to Roald Dahl classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has been honed to perfection. It’s sweet but never saccharine. There is a rhythm and rhyme to the dialogue and every alliterative flourish, a lyrical flow that’s matched in the wit and whimsy The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon brings to the songs.
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This is a film from the creative team behind Paddington and Paddington 2 – with director Paul King at the helm and his co-writer Farnaby on gags duty – and it shows. The comedic tone is similar, the cartoonish villains equally dastardly, and then there’s Hugh Grant, this time as a grumpy Oompa Loompa. Which is every bit as good as it sounds.
If the film is shot through with a rich vein of British humour, Chalamet, a true Hollywood star, gives Wonka global appeal.
“’People don’t know I’m a song and dance man’ – that’s what Timmy said when I first met him,” says Farnaby of his lead actor. “I had just seen him in Bones and All, so I went, this is a bit of a change from that cannibal film. But he’s very inventive and playful. We wanted Willy to have that wide-eyed enthusiasm, to be slightly naive – because he hasn’t been made into the bitter person he becomes later. He had all that and he’s funny as well.”
Farnaby got a close-up look at Chalamet’s talents before filming began. “We were with Timmy for about two weeks early on,” he continues. “I went through the whole movie several times with him, where I played all the other parts. Including the Oompa Loompa. That was such a great time.”
Farnaby’s Ghostsand Horrible Histories co-star Baynton plays Fickelgruber, one of the three chocolatiers, who are the main villains of the film – determined to keep newcomer Wonka out of the chocolate market.
“Timothée really enjoyed other people’s performances. Not everyone has that attitude, but he really laughed at people being funny around him,” he says. “I remember one evening, I was going home to my lovely secure family and I thought, we just assume if someone is a huge star that they’re really confident. But imagine putting yourself in his shoes – you’ve got to sing, dance, be funny and you’re in almost every scene. You’re in a foreign country, your family and mates aren’t around. That’s very hard, whoever you are.
“But he always just seemed like he was having a blast, you know? And that is key to giving a great performance, particularly comedically.”
This is the biggest role of Baynton’s career. But his casting makes perfect sense. “I’ve never done a Hollywood studio film or anything on a budget of this scale before,” he says. “So on the one hand it was really awe-inspiring and unfamiliar. But on the other hand, I felt absolutely at home. Because the tone of the writing feels at the very least a cousin to what we’ve done together with things like Ghosts.”
Here at The Big Issue, we like to serve even the most joyous, uplifting family entertainment with a side order of topical politics. Culture is political. Even at Christmas. So, sure, Wonka is all about set-piece song and dance numbers, sweet, sweet chocolate and Chalamet’s charisma as he brings young Willy – a man with a hatful of dreams and the most magical chocolate recipes – to life. But it might also be the most political film of the year. Homelessness, domestic slavery, the treatment of migrant workers, literacy, and the gross excesses of capitalism – they’re all here.
“There are a lot of big things in there,” says Farnaby, who co-wrote the film and also appears, as per the tradition started in Paddington, as a lovelorn security guard. “I suppose the main message is of community. Everything revolves around chocolate – but what do you do if you have some chocolate? Well, you can scoff it all yourself or you can share it with everybody. Willy naively comes to town and thinks everything’s fair and the system works if you’ve got talent and application. Then he finds out that’s not the case, which I think is the truth for many people.
“The message we wanted to get across is that if you have a dream, you’re not powerless. With the help of others you can change the world.”
There’s one line that recurs. “The greedy beat the needy.” It’s quite shocking to hear – especially delivered by one so young as Noodle.
“It’s funny, in Paddington 2 we had ‘be kind and polite and the world will be right’,” says Farnaby. “We went, can we put this philosophy in there, in a funny way that is sort of edible for families and kids? Because if you hammer people over the head with these things, it can become reactionary.” Baynton joins in: “Not to segue to Ghosts again, but that’s always felt like a Trojan horse. People aren’t arriving for a lesson. They’re arriving to be entertained and enjoy the proximity to those characters. Same with Horrible Histories, they are not tuning in for the history lesson, they are tuning in for the laugh but pick up the lesson along the way.”
In the film, Baynton, Matt Lucas and Paterson Joseph’s Fickelgruber, Prodnose and Slugworth run the city, even controlling the chocaholic chief of police with a regular supply of sweet treats. This is rampant capitalism played for big laughs. And it works.
“It’s a gift of a role,” says Baynton. “The costume, the moustache, it is all there without me really needing to do anything. I just needed to pull a few disgusted faces along the way. It’s enormous fun to play a monster. There’s nothing you can do that’s too extreme. I just had to park my idea that I am meant to be a good actor and be subtle, and instead get used to the idea of being bigger, bigger, bigger.”
The grotesque humour of the villains and the clarity of the message that greed is bad are smartly judged. There are no sermons (not even from Rowan Atkinson’s priest). “Fickelgruber is all about vanity and the appearance of wealth, Slugworth is all about money, he is pure greed. And Prodnose shows the ignorance of privilege. He seems like the one whose mummy and daddy were the richest,” adds Baynton. “As a kid, I really responded to the fact that the grown-ups in Roald Dahl’s books are monsters, for the most part. He presents a world in which grown-ups have been corrupted by the world around them. There are a few grown-ups who are still childlike enough to be wonderful. But Fickelgruber has just been twisted by greed.”
His character even has an extreme, visceral reaction to any mention of poverty. Again, it’s played for laughs. But again, it shows the disdain these super-rich big chocolate tycoons have for working people. So how would Fickelgruber react to the man playing him talking to The Big Issue? “Oh, he would be disgusted!” grins Baynton. “He would have emptied the contents of his stomach before the first sentence.”
Wonka is in cinemas now.
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