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LFF: Saving Mr. Banks

David brings you one of the first reviews from the London Film Festival's world premiere of this unseen Oscar tip. Will Disney add some more statues to his vast collection?

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.

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Reader Comments (17)

Very nice review. I remember when Sense and Sensibility came out, David Denby thought Emma Thompson's crying scene at the end of the film was representative of the best acting by a woman that year. I will see this film immediately just to see Emma in a bigger part again. But I also loved Mary Poppins as a kid so there is that part of the story that appeals to me, too. Plus so many good actors in the cast.

October 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGabriel Oak

Sorry, David, I didn't read this but for the first paragraph (I know, I know how gauche) but chiming in to say that Emma is indeed a fantastic on-screen crier. Her breakdown in HOWARDS END is sublime. It's Thompson and Thompson only that has me so excited for the film. I can give or take Hanks who I'm ambivalent towards, but it's so great to see Emma front and centre again.

October 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew K.

Very much looking forward to this because of Emma. The film will probably be quaint from the sounds of it but there's nothing wrong with that every once in a while. Also I'm intrigued to see Colin Farrell as her father, I like him as an actor when he does the more understated films that require acting not the pyrotechnics of action films especially since he always seems to pick the wrong ones.

October 20, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

EMMA THOMPSON. This woman is everything. Now this is how you make an entrance: "TIFF!" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KM-qc8yk4Aw

I'm so glad she's back. I need a buddy comedy with her and Meryl Streep.

A remake of Bridesmaids with those two, Kathy Bates, Helen Mirren, Jessica Lange and Sissy Spacek. Yes please.

October 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJay

Also: this instant love people seem to have for EMMA THOMPSON returning to the big screen in a major way is why I think she'll be a fierce competitor for a Best Actress win.

She's adored by everyone inside and outside the industry, she's a hoot AND a ham, she's crazy talented and she isn't nominated since the 90s and she hasn't won since 1992.

Watch out, Cate. If SAVING MR BANKS catches fire at the BO, we may be looking at a surprise, Blind Side-style.

October 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJay

You know, I always get mad at people who vote for their favorites regardless of performance, but I guess it's my turn to eat my words, because assuming the field ends up being the Big 5: Cate, Sandy, Meryl, Judi, and Emma, I'll be rooting for Emma on principle. I'm sure, as always, that she'll be marvelous, plus she'd give the best speech.

That said, sorry Emma, we can't be friends again until nomination morning passes. I've got other prize ponies to worry about in this race.

October 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTB

Disappointed to hear that Rachel Griffiths' isn't the supporting actress charger (ala, say, Viola Davis in DOUBT) that I'd been hoping.

October 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Let me see, big Disney fan, would watch Tom Hanks read a phone book, Emma Thompson (enough said), I need no more reasons to see this movie. Can't think of anyone else I would trust to play Walt Disney on screen.

October 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJSB

One thing people haven't mentioned about Emma's chances: she's playing a real person! Neither Cate nor Sandra have this advantage. Love that entrance at TIFF.

October 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

"...quickly establishing the hearty transatlantic binary between uptight Brit and liberal American..."

Disney was far from liberal. Disney also named names and ruined careers of people he'd employed. He was anti-Semitic and likely racist as well.

Why everyone expects this gooey mess to conquer Hollywood is a mystery to me.

October 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPatryk

Thank you, Patryk. I've heard this about Walt Disney. Except for my overwhelming adoration for Emma Thompson, I would never board this Disney ride. Disney and Walmart are evil villains in my world.

BTW--Emma was also hilarious and amazing at the TIFF press conference.

October 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPam

Emma Thompson was robbed of a Supp Actress nom for 'Love Actually.

That scene where she plays Joni Mitchell's 'Both Sides Now' is one of the most heart wrenching displays of acting I have ever seen.

I don't think she will win for Saving Mr Banks - my tip is it'll be either Amy Adams, Judi Dench or Cate Blanchett (I'm leaning towards Amy cos of the 'it's time' factor).

But who knows. The older members of the Academy have a soft spot for the cryogenic Disney - so we'll wait and see.

October 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBette Streep

I also got to see this at the Premiere. As one would have expected, Thompson is as fantastic as ever and Hanks is quite entertaining. However, the movie (also as one would have expected) is terribly sentimental and the structure, full of recurring flashbacks, let's it don't a bit, although I suppose these were necessary for the story Marcel wanted to tell. I could see both Thompson and Hanks grabbing noms, although I wouldn't place my bets just yet. I also saw Philomena yesterday and I have similar feeling about Dench's and Thompson's performances. Although they're both great and in quaint, heartwarming films (I need to see how they age, but I think I liked Frears' movie better) their performances are nothing that we hadn't seen them do before or at least that we didn't know they could do. I wouldn't mind seeing both of them nominated, but a win by either would be an upset, as Blanchett is, by far, still the best female lead I've seen all year.

October 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCarlos

Glenn: I'd forgotten she was even in it until she turned up. It's barely a performance, sadly.

Patryk and Pam: I certainly did not mean "liberal" in the political sense; merely as a contrast in the workplace attitudes of Travers and Disney. As I'm sure you'll be shocked to learn, the film doesn't engage with political issues at all and obviously was never going to criticise Disney. It's a Disneyfication of Disney, as Guy Lodge said.

Carlos: I personally preferred this film to Philomena, but I'd say Dench is more likely for a nom because it seems like her film will be more loved. Thompson's in if the film does good box office, I'd say - the scenes at the premiere seemed designed for an Oscar clip, though surely they'll use some of her more haughty moments. But Blanchett and Bullock aren't going to be bothered by either Dench or Thompson.

October 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

I'm sorry this couldn't be the vehicle for Colin's first nomination...instead it seems it could help Hanks to gain a double nomination

October 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMirko

@David: I agree on the fact that Blanchett and Bullock's slots are in no way in risk of being taken by the Brits. As to who's more likely to grab a nod between Dench and Thompson, I agree the former might have a better chance and Thompson may depend more on how the film does. However, I would expect Saving Mr Banks to be more liked by Oscar, what with the topic, real-life icons and the fact that it is more of an artistic achievement (I'll admit the movie's well done, it's just the tone and rhythm that let me down a bit).

October 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCarlos

I have dream: Emma Thompson in nomination after eighteen years. At last, She is in an good film. I like Thompson a long time. I remember forever Margaret Schlegel in Howards End, winner Oscar best actress.

October 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMirko

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