Trailer: Saving Mr Banks
The story behind the making of the movie Mary Poppins, and the clash of personalities between Walt Disney and author P.L. Travers.PT2M58S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2q0tn 620 349 July 16, 2013
Emma Thompson works diligently at playing the grouch in her role as author P. L. Travers, creator of Mary Poppins. Everything about her is prickly, including her hairstyle, which duplicates the effects of a bad perm. But because she's Emma Thompson, she keeps threatening to morph from being a stuck-up bitch into a good sport burdened with a tender heart.
Saving Mr Banks is a lively account of her business dealings with Walt Disney, who has also been tenderised in translation.
Tom Hanks' Uncle Walt is cunning but jolly, with nothing of the autocrat about him, which is probably fair enough. From all accounts, Disney was at his most courtly during the time it took him to persuade Travers to sell him the film rights to her Mary Poppins books.
The negotiations, which took place at the Disney Studios in 1961, were protracted and heated. Ignoring the adage that any writer wooed by Hollywood should take the money and run, Travers stuck around to haggle over every aspect of the planned production. The film gives us wrangles over the casting of Dick Van Dyke, the use of animation and Travers' suddenly acquired aversion to the colour red.
Disney, conscious of the unsigned contract still standing between them, makes a great show of his desire to accommodate her. Not that he means it. In the end, Van Dyke, the colour red and the animated despised dancing penguins all find their way on to the screen.
The filming of Travers' Hollywood stay began with Australian producer Ian Collie and his discovery of Sydney author Valerie Lawson's biography, Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P. L. Travers. Intrigued by the fact that Travers was born and raised in Queensland, Collie first produced a documentary with writer-director Lisa Matthews. He then commissioned Australian television writer Sue Smith to write the script for a biopic. Further refinements were made by British writer Kelly Marcel (The Other Boleyn Girl), and the result is a screenplay that intercuts the story of Travers' adventures in Disney's kingdom with flashbacks to her Queensland childhood, which sounds clunky but somehow works.
Colin Farrell manages to authenticate her much-loved alcoholic father, Travers Goff, as a tragic figure, a gentle dreamer whose hated career as a country bank manager has been in free fall for some time. When we first meet the family, he has just been exiled to a small town on the Darling Downs, where he is about to drink himself out of the job altogether. Nonetheless, Farrell preserves enough of his sad-eyed charm to explain why the young Travers (Annie Rose Buckley) adores him.
The link between past and present lies in the adult Travers' attachment to Mr Banks, the patriarch of the family in Mary Poppins. He owes a lot to her memories of poor Goff, and the Disney team, she decides quite rightly, is intent on making a pompous and unfeeling caricature of him. And so, hostilities begin.
In the early stages of the film's trip to the screen, Meryl Streep was briefly mentioned as a possibility for the Travers part and I suspect that she might have produced somebody a little wilder than the thwarted schoolmistress we get here.
While Thompson's reading may be closer to the truth, the Travers it produces is not exactly exciting, although she does extract some nice comic touches from the scenes in which she goes into battle against the family of cuddly Disney animals with which Uncle Walt has furnished her hotel room.
The actors were able to draw on tapes of Travers' sessions with three key members of Disney's team. Mary Poppins' screenwriter, Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), and the film's composers, Richard Sherman (Jason Schwartzman) and his brother, Robert (B.J. Novak) are irrepressible show business professionals. They improvise, act out their dialogue and sing their songs and their optimistic attempts to disarm Travers' froideur are hugely entertaining.
Having disowned her Australian origins, she has become frostier than an English winter and the thought of her beloved Mary's transmogrification into something as vulgar as a soubrette is more than she can bear.
By way of giving us a break from her ill-humour, the script invents Ralph, her driver, portrayed by Paul Giamatti as a man who refuses to take offence, no matter how vigorously she insults and patronises him and after a while, his saintliness takes effect, allowing Thompson to colour her performance with touches of civility.
It all helps prepare the ground for the inevitable feel-good ending, which is understandable but also disappointing. After all the care that's gone into the telling of this singular tale, which says all sorts of things about creative pride and personal inspiration versus the commercial vibrancy of the Hollywood studio system in its heyday, it's a pity to see it lose its edge and slide into sentimentality.
SAVING MR BANKS
Directed by John Lee Hancock
Rated PG, 125 minutes