Saving Mr. Banks, John Lee Hancock’s study of the making of Disney’s classic movie, Mary Poppins, is an intelligent and moving film, beautifully cast, and winningly performed. It tells the story of the fractious encounter between Walt Disney and author P.L. Travers over the rights and screenplay for the movie, juxtaposing the Hollywood studio saga with flashbacks to Mrs. Travers’ past – the defining childhood episodes which have shaped her fiction and which she is loath to let go.
Kelly Michael and Sue Smith have crafted a tautly intertwined narrative of the young Helen Goff living in the Australian outback with her beloved but alcoholic father and her overwhelmed mother and how this painful childhood history has shaped the successful but bitterly acerbic writer, self-styled as Pamela L. Travers. The screenplay moves seamlessly between the past and the present, overlapping brilliantly in key sequences such as Travers Goff’s disastrous, drunken speech at the county fair which is underscored with music from the Mary Poppins movie. The genesis of each of Travers’ characters becomes clear as Helen’s history is gradually revealed, and we ultimately meet Mary Poppins, herself, the girl’s crisp, efficient Aunt Ellie who comes to help the family after Travers Goff’s death. Most of all, we come to understand that the focus of Mrs. Travers’ works has always been Mr. Banks, a man inspired by her father, whom the adult writer must now learn to forgive and relinquish. This tale of transformation is told in a subtle, witty, and warm manner, as P.L. Travers absorbs a very different kind of magic from her Disney experience.
Hancock directs with a sly sense of humor and touching, but not treacly use of sentiment, and he is aided by the evocative cinematography of John Schwartzman and the lovely period décor and costumes by design team Michael Corenblith, Lauren E. Polizzi, Susan Benjamin, and Daniel Orlandi.
Emma Thompson stars as the overbearing, prim, icy P.L. Travers, whose armor is worn with such secret terror that it is evident from the start that her demeanor disguises deep hurts and misgivings. With great subtlety she recreates Travers’ gradual surrender, so that by the movie premiere scene where she weeps, she has won the audience’s sympathy as well. It is a masterful performance – note perfect when one listens to the voice of the actual Mrs. Travers on tape during the end credits – and one which runs the gamut from tactless, smug, self-righteous, to wounded, vulnerable, and even compassionate,
As Walt Disney, Tom Hanks is every bit her match. An actor whom I find to be sometimes bland, other times extraordinary, he nails this portrayal. Not only does he look and sound like Disney, but he has mastered the mogul’s cunning charm and disarmingly brilliant business sense.
Annie Rose Buckley is a lovely, fey young Helen Goff, and Colin Farrell turns in a mesmerizing performance as the hapless Travers Goff – a man whose poetic, romantic soul is being destroyed by the pedestrian realities of his bank job. Though his alcoholism is destroying himself and everything he loves, Farrell gives Goff the imagination and mythic aura to make him the enduring figure he becomes in his daughter’s life.
The remainder of the supporting cast is all outstanding. Paul Giamatti plays Ralph, P.L. Travers’ chauffeur, with an elfin appeal, managing to win over the glacial Travers with a direct simplicity that is most poignant. As the creative team for Mary Poppins, Bradley Whitford (screenwriter Dan DaGradi), B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman (composer-lyricist Sherman brothers) exude a deft mixture of Hollywood savvy and disbelief at the antics of Mrs. Travers. Melanie Paxton as Disney’s loyal receptionist, Dolly, and Kathy Baker as Tommie, his wise and discreet secretary, turn in winning cameos. Ruth Wilson is a lovely and lost Margaret Goff, driven by her husband’s downward spiral to contemplate suicide, while Rachel Griffiths makes Aunt Ellie the engaging prototype of the governess, herself.
For all those who have cherished the P.L. Travers books, and who have thrilled to the Disney musical version, Saving Mr. Banks offers an intriguing insight into the creation and linkage of these classics. Moreover, the film grapples with the fascinating questions of a writer’s autobiographical inspiration and the sometimes painful process of transforming fact into fiction.