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Saving Mr. Banks

D: John Lee Hancock / 125m

Cast: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Annie Rose Buckley, Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, Ruth Wilson, Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak, Rachel Griffiths, Kathy Baker, Ronan Vibert

Based on the true story of Walt Disney’s attempts to secure the film rights to P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins, Saving Mr. Banks opens with the financially compromised author (Thompson) telling her agent she has absolutely no intention of flying to Los Angeles and letting Disney (Hanks) ruin her creation.  One quick turnaround later and we see Travers arriving in La La Land and being met by her driver for the duration of her stay, Ralph (Giamatti).  One dispiriting car journey (for her) later and she is introduced to the charming and sincere Disney.  Her doubts assuaged for the time being, she agrees to work with the proposed movie’s writers (Whitford, Schwartzman and Novak).  As they work through the script and songs we’ve all come to know – and perhaps love – Travers’ objections remain largely in place, but gradually her resistance is worn down by a combination of the writers’ enthusiasm, Disney’s determination not to renege on a promise made to his daughters twenty years before, and memories of her childhood that resurface during the visit.

It’s these flashbacks that add meat to the otherwise thin story of “a writer taking on the system”.  As portrayed by Thompson – and superbly, I might add – Travers is presented as a bit of an old dragon: scathing, contemptuous of her American “cousins”, rude, condescending and almost completely out of her depth.  Hancock and writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, instead of making the movie a “fish out of water” story where the fish wins out by virtue of personal fortitude and stubbornness, have wisely chosen to look at the reasons for Travers’ animosity towards Disney, and why the character of Mr Banks was so important to her.  As Travers’ back story unfolds through the depiction of her childhood, so we come to learn the fundamental truth behind the characters of Mr Banks and of Mary Poppins herself, and the long-term effect Travers’ childhood has had on her.  These scenes give a much-needed depth to the movie, and allows Thompson to provide a richer, more psychological approach to P.L. Travers than may have been expected.  Thompson dominates the movie, reducing even Tom Hanks to the level of humble onlooker in their scenes together, and gives a masterclass in screen acting, her voice and mannerisms and facial expressions all perfectly pitched to leave the audience in no doubt as to her thoughts and feelings at any time.

Saving Mr. Banks - scene

Matching Thompson in terms of screen performance, and presence, is her younger counterpart, Annie Rose Buckley.  With only an episode of Aussie soap Home and Away back in 2010 under her belt, Buckley’s performance as Ginty is intuitive, mesmerising and a minor revelation.  As her scenes transform from pastoral idyllic to domestic unstable, Buckley displays a maturity and command of the material that few actresses her age would be capable of achieving, let alone maintaining, over the course of a two hour movie.  She’s a remarkable find, and all credit to the casting director Ronna Kress for picking her out.

As Disney, Tom Hanks gives a comfortable performance but the script often sidelines him, so that he pops up only now and again to urge on Travers and perform a little light damage control when required.  It’s effectively a supporting role, and one that doesn’t stretch him in any way.  In other roles, Farrell as the inspiration for Mr Banks plays against type for the first half of the movie, while Wilson is given little to do as his wife other than look disappointed or, in one scene, have a five minute breakdown.  Giamatti is good as Travers’ driver, and he provides several deft comic ripostes to Thompson’s sarcastic jibes.  And in perhaps the most sublime casting decision of all, Rachel Griffiths messes with our acceptance of Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins by portraying the “real” Mary.

Saving Mr. Banks is lovely to watch, courtesy of bright, colourful photography by John Schwartzman (half-brother of Jason), and a pleasing recreation both of turn-of-the-20th-century Australia and 60’s Los Angeles.  Disneyland is given an effective retro makeover, and the music by Thomas Newman – incorporating several of the songs from Mary Poppins (1964) – adds extra emotional elements to both storylines.  If there is a lightness of touch, a slight distancing from the more dramatic aspects of Ginty’s childhood, then it should be remembered that this is still a Disney movie, and the studio that works hard to sanitise almost all of its family-oriented movies – and at heart this is still one of them, make no mistake – isn’t about to let people leave the cinema feeling saddened or depressed.  Fortunately, Saving Mr. Banks carries enough emotional heft to offset its more calculated hilarity, and if there are moments where you wonder just how much of it all is true or not, the fact that Disney were banking on a much-loved “product” in Mary Poppins, also informs this movie as well.

Rating: 8/10 – enjoyable, handsomely mounted movie that avoids being as original as say, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”; and without Thompson in the lead role providing a strong point of reference for the audience, would have struggled to stand out from the crowd of other “true stories” set in Hollywood.