Emma Thompson is an exquisite crier. Friends, acquaintances and enemies still cite her strand of Love Actually as easily the film’s strongest aspect, and her reaction to her husband’s thoughtful but incorrect present as one of the actress’ finest moments. There’s something about the way the composed, somewhat remote attitude crumbles, drawn all over Thompson’s face, that makes it so sympathetic and wistfully beautiful to witness. And it’s due to this, partly, that Saving Mr. Banks is as successful as it is – the experienced, perceptive way both Thompson and co-star Tom Hanks have of selling their monologues and close-ups, which in less experienced hands could so easily have seemed hackneyed and manipulative.
John Lee Hancock’s tale of the negotiations between Walt Disney (Hanks) and Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers (Thompson) is pretty standard sentimental stuff, quickly establishing the hearty transatlantic binary between uptight Brit and liberal American. Travers insists on being called “Mrs. Travers”; Walt, his employees whisper to her, only works on a first name basis. Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith’s screenplay mines this for as many laughs as it can possibly produce. [More]
And it’s to Thompson’s credit that she keeps these repeated affectations from overwhelming her character. As well as the cultural binary, Marcel and Smith weave in a temporal one; Travers’ childhood as Helen ‘Ginty’ Gough (Annie Buckley), a young Australian who slowly comes to realise that her beloved father Robert (Colin Farrell) is far more fragile than his cheery demeanour suggests.
It’s an obvious but fairly effective narrative structure, slowly drawing the elder and younger lives of Travers together. Ginty’s innocence is captured through the heavy application of Thomas Newman’s delicate, Disneyfied score, making her halcyon youth the more fairy tale of the two strands – until it begins to fall apart. Rachel Griffiths’ strident appearance in the trailer, as the Aunt who’s the absolute spit of Mary Poppins, is disappointingly brief; it’s Ruth Wilson, as Ginty’s mother, who steals top honours of these scenes, her anxiety almost silently performed.
But as you might expect, the heart of the film lies in the relationship between Walt and Mrs Travers. Just as Thompson is wonderfully poised and dismissive, doing an expert Hollywood job of dismantling Travers’ guarded barbs as her memories seep in and soften her up, Hanks might be even better as Disney. He uses his movie star charisma to portray Walt’s immense popularity, but does so without sacrificing the shades of manipulation to his dealings with Travers. (And when he smiles, he looks eerily like Mickey Mouse. Well, he is family.)
Travers spends as much time with screenwriter Don DaGradi (a charming Bradley Whitford) and songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) as she does with the head honcho, but it’s her scenes with Disney (alongside a curiously touching Paul Giamatti as her L.A. chauffeur) that really sing. The inevitable historical result of the events puts a bit of a damper on any mystery or tension, but Marcel and Smith do find some intriguing angles in the movie business power play here. What we see here are the very foundations of the film Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke are glimpsed for the briefest of moments), and the entanglement of such a personal story with a big business like Disney’s. For both Disney and Travers, in quite different ways, it’s all about the details. While Hancock and his screenwriters might often go for the broader picture, he’s landed some stars who understand what their characters are motivated by.