Saving Mr Banks – a review

P.L. Travers was the woman who sold the rights to Mary Poppins to Walt Disney – and then wished she hadn’t.

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Following on from Paul’s post about his favourite Disney movie Mary Poppins, I decided it would be good to review a film we watched recently.

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This is a film essentially about the life of PL Travers, although the main storyline is the culmination of a 20 year long courtship by Walt Disney to get the rights to Mary Poppins because he promised his daughters he would make the film.

Emma Thompson is wonderful as Pamela Travers, criminally overlooked by the Oscar board for the emotional, heartfelt performance she puts in.  She portrays P L Travers as a stiff upped lipped British woman, who is all about manners, the correct etiquette and who shudders in revulsion at the over familiar, touchy feely Americans. However, lying somewhere deep beneath her frosty, uncompromising exterior is a woman who still feels the loss of her father very keenly. In an astonishingly good turn from Colin Farrell, Pamela’s father is brought to life as a free spirited man who loves his children…..but not as much as he loves the bottle.

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Through a series of flashbacks (my favourite scenes, and also the heart and soul of the movie), we see Pamela’s childhood years and we see the real life inspiration for Mary Poppins – her aunt Ellie who arrives to help her sister deal with an alcoholic husband, telling her nieces to pitch in and help with all the housework. “Come on, spit spot.” The role is played by Rachel Griffiths (Muriel’s Wedding, Six Feet Under) and although she has little screen time, her appearance makes a wonderful impact.

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Another terrific, poignant performance comes from Ruth Wilson (Jane Eyre, Luther), as the mother of Pamela who is struggling with housework, bringing up 3 children and living with an alcoholic husband who at the start of the film is making the family trek across Australia to leave behind a beautiful house in a city to live on a farm in the middle of a small town. You get the feeling this isn’t the only time he’s uprooted the family to escape the problems his drinking creates.

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These flashback scenes are rich and vivid and draw the viewer into Pamela’s story effectively. You begin by disliking her and rooting for Walt, but by the end of the movie, you are backing Pamela 100%.

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Onto the main storyline. P L Travers is flown out to LA to work with the writers at Disney Studios.  She is greeted at the airport by her driver Ralph (Paul Giamatti), who she treats with disdain, whilst correcting him over the use of her name and being generally unresponsive to his attempts at conversation. This relationship develops wonderfully and creates many heartfelt, touching moments.

When Pamela arrives at her hotel to a suite stuffed full of Disney paraphernalia (a genuinely funny scene), you get the feeling right away that this is not going to be plain sailing.

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What then follows is a power struggle between Pamela, Walt, The Sherman brothers and writer Don DaGradi (the always excellent Bradley Whitford). Pamela wants her own way in all things and wants to film to remain true to the character of Mary Poppins, who isn’t jolly or happy and smiling but stern, firm and slightly sinister. Working through the weeks, Walt and his team soon come to understand the story behind the story and the fact that Pamela has drawn from own her life to write it. Mary Poppins does not arrive to save the children….she’s there to save Mr Banks.

Tom Hanks turns in his usual, stellar performance. I think it’s impossible for him to do anything but shine on screen, as one of out most talented, versatile actors. As mentioned, Emma Thompson is amazing and the both of them are supported by a fantastic cast.

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In the end, P L Travers admitted that Mary Poppins wasn’t a bad film. It just wasn’t her Mary Poppins. I wished she could have enjoyed it and embraced it for what it was, but when you put so much of yourself into something, it becomes so highly personal and important that having some American man ride roughshod over it ensures you will never give any more rights to any more books – and she didn’t. Still, Mary Poppins was a great film – still enjoyed by generations everywhere.

One interesting point about the film – it’s a Disney production but they didn’t paint Walt in a perfect light. His flaws are there and hanging out for all to see – going back on his word, purposefully not inviting P L Travers to the movie premiere…..Disney do not re-write history just to make Walt look good. Likewise, judging by the actual tapes from the writing sessions, P L Travers was a nightmare to work with, but they made her character sympathetic, likable and the result is a thought provoking, emotional, well acted, well written, wonderful movie.

Highly recommended and well worth a watch.

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