By BRUCE DENNILL
Saving Mr Banks / Directed by John Lee Hancock / PG
Sometimes, you can’t make this stuff up. PL Travers, the author of the original Mary Poppins books and rabidly possessive holder of the rights to the stories, had to be courted and coaxed to relinquish access to her imagination, even though the man doing the coaxing was Walt Disney – arguably the most powerful man in the history of popular entertainment.
The Disney studio process at the time was the stuff of real-life magic: a strong story would be sourced and a crack team of screenwriters, musicians and other experts would be assembled in order to give the project shape and body.
This was the antithesis of Travers’ system, which was built on slow, steady accumulation of ideas based in turn on carefully processed life experiences gained in a difficult but occasionally charmed childhood.
Director John Lee Hancock (whose mawkish The Blind Side won an Oscar but who saw this transcendent piece overlooked) balances the background material – Travers’ formative years, spent in thrall to her beloved, flawed father (Colin Farrell, in a role that balances the megawatt magnetism of Disney and Travers with healthy doses of both tragedy and levity) – with the fascinating, sometimes exasperating process of getting the film version of Mary Poppins made.
Travers didn’t want it to be a musical. Disney had the industry’s top musicals songwriters on tap. Travers hated animation. Disney brought it into the exact middle of the mainstream. Travers was an uptight, ever-so-proper marm. Disney insisted on every one of his many staff greeting him by his first name, and he knew all of theirs. This was never going to be easy.
Emma Thompson, as Travers, does some of the best work of her career. That she would need to convince the film’s audience to love and respect a woman who seemed intent on alienating everyone she met is a given from the beginning of the piece. That she would offer observers of Travers’ slow thaw such sophisticated shrewdness is a mark of her talent and ability to entertain. Opposite her, Hanks does that strange thing that’s made him a permanent fixture on the A-list: taken a set of fairly standard features and a conservative, straight-laced mien and made them seem like the most compelling thing in the world. He’s worked with all the biggest directors and producers in the business – perfect preparation for inhabiting Walt Disney.
The supporting cast are no less impressive, particularly Paul Giamatti as Travers’ driver, James, and BJ Novak and Jason Schwartzman as the Sherman brothers, the songwriters who came up with such gems as Feed The Birds and Let’s Go Fly A Kite.
Looked at superficially, this is a wonderfully written and exquisitely acted memoir-style drama. For viewers who love cinema, it’s considerably more: a dedication to the passion that goes into maintaining the integrity of a close-to-perfect idea and the pain that comes with surrendering even a part of that integrity to someone else, even if they’ve done everything in their power to convince you that what you have created is as important to them as it is to you. And all this while taking audiences into the tinderbox where the spark that set off a million memories was lit.