In the early 1960s P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) is flown to LA to meet with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). The idea is to turn Travers’ beloved Mary Poppins books into a film, but she is famously protective of her character. While working on the script, Travers thinks back to her childhood, and the beautiful, yet tragic, events that inspired the creation of her beloved Mary Poppins.
The choice to cast Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers is a stroke of genius. Not only is Thompson a wonderful actress, but in 2012 she wrote The Further Tale of Peter Rabbit; a book based on Beatrix Potter’s tales, and set in the same world. As well as this, Thompson wrote screenplays for Sense and Sensibility and Nanny McPhee, so if anyone understands the pains of adapting a beloved work for the screen, it’s her. As P.L. Travers, Thompson brilliantly balances the character, at first we are confronted with a woman who fits the tales we have heard about her; gruff and uncompromising. Even as she refuses to negotiate, however, Thompson brings an undercurrent of tragedy and gentleness to the role, which is explained as the film goes on.
Tom Hanks plays Walt Disney as a man who is as big as the name he has created for himself. While he is accommodating, Disney is also as relentless as the prey he is chasing. Hanks and Thompson work well together on screen, as they are complete opposites; she is a woman who has built an emotional shell to protect herself, he is honest and open. She is a sensible, no-nonsense sort of woman; he is the man who has built worlds full of wonder. The contrast is striking, and it works.
Paul Giamatti plays Ralph, a cheery chauffeur who is tasked with bringing Travers around LA. Even though this is a tiny role, Giamatti makes his presence felt on screen, as he refuses to be cowed by his formidable charge, and is filled with the wonder that we would expect from a man who is star struck to meet Walt Disney. Bradley Whitford takes on the role of Don DaGradi, the man who intends to write the screenplay for Mary Poppins, and Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak turn up as the Sherman brothers, who wrote the songs for a film that Travers insisted should not be a musical. Each of the supporting cast adds to the tapestry of the film and, even though they are certainly there to support Thompson, they are warm and endearing.
Colin Farrell and Ruth Wilson play Travers’ parents, who we see through flashback as the author reflects on her life. Wilson has a couple of outstanding moments, but she is really there to throw Colin Farrell’s performance as Mr Goff into relief. Farrell is gentle, playful and warm, and it is through him that Travers learned about mystery and magic. Throughout his performance, even when he is at his brightest and most carefree, Farrell channels a vein of darkness, and his relationships with the young actors feel genuine and believable. The film hinges as much on Farrell as it does on Thompson, and he shoulder’s the burden lightly, masking tragedy with hope and wonder.
Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith’s screenplay could easily have infused the story with saccharine sweetness and overblown romance, but as it stands, this is the story of the relationship between a young girl and her father, who she idolises. Although the flashbacks sometimes jar, and until the reason for them is revealed feel a little redundant, as we learn to understand Travers’ relationship with her father so do we begin to understand the adult she became. This clever balance of past and present in the film makes it feel like a mystery, and piques audience curiosity. Add to this some biting dialogue and dry humour, and Saving Mr Banks becomes a nostalgic, funny and charming period piece. Of course this is a film produced by Disney, so everyone comes out of it in a good light, but this is also a film about a moment in time and a very specific relationship, so meandering through Disney’s life would not be appropriate here. That’s another story for another time.
Director John Lee Hancock’s last film – The Blind Side – was slightly over sentimental and played for tears. Here, the director is toned down and allows the story to speak for itself. There is a strong current of nostalgia running through the film and while this is enhanced by the film being set in the 1960s, this nostalgia is for childhood; for Travers’ and for our own, as we watched Disney films and fell in love with the films, and the magical worlds on screen.
Saving Mr Banks is a finely crafted film that unravels some of the mystery surrounding P.L. Travers and her fierce protectiveness of Mary Poppins. Hanks and Farrell shine, but this is really Thompson’s moment; she does a beautiful job with the material, and with safeguarding our childhoods. Saccharine and schmaltz are nowhere to be seen in this moving and emotional portrait of a film that almost never was.