I happened on this film post a friend’s recommendation, and then got hooked by the star cast as it had my two most favourite actors—Emma Thompson and Tom ‘Hanx’. I did not have any background information about the story or its making or commercial success—either from film critics or the average lay audience—which in hindsight proved to be a lucky blessing as I was to discover.
After the viewing, I was left with the all-too-familiar-bordering-on-cliché tingling in my toes and smarting in my eyes and loads of adrenalin chugging up and down my nervous system like the Nile in flood. In short, I was bowled clean over by the film. This was one perfect viewing, and the only way I could do justice to it (and the friend who recommended it) was to write about it. So, here we go.
The storyline is unusual, to begin with—not clearly belonging to any genre—not a romcom, not a thriller or horror or sci-fi—though definitely with a distinct leaning towards the biopic, but not even exactly that, considering it simply focuses on one time in a person’s life rather than the entire lifetime. The story revolves around Walt Disney (the man himself) attempting to procure the screen rights of the famous P.L . Travers book ‘Mary Poppins’ to make a film out of the same. Unusually though, while a regular story would have possibly approached the event from the point of view of Disney, this film depicts it from the perspective of P.L Travers, the author—her disturbed childhood contributing to the growth of Mary Poppins, her emotional/psychological attachment with her creation and her painful struggle related to her signing the screen rights for the Disney film and relinquishing her hold on the Banks family and Mary Poppins. Travers’ disturbed childhood, primarily shaped by an affectionate but irresolute father who plunges down the road to destruction including his entire family with him, occurs throughout the narrative as a leitmotif with vivid, detailed renditions of her father’s deep affection for his daughters, his inability to hold on to a real job, his lack of worldliness, his submission to alcoholism and subsequent death by consumption. Interlaced with these images are the starkly contrasted ones of 1961 when a seemingly whimsical, at times even unquestionably eccentric, middle aged Travers is stubbornly refusing to give any ground to Walt Disney about ‘Mary Poppins’ the film—whether the film can be a musical, whether Mr Banks, the head of the Banks family, should be allowed to have a moustache, whether the film can have animated cartoons as part of the cast or whether the colour red can be depicted in the film.
The background to this overt conflict is beautifully peppered with scenes that are stolid and fragile by turns—Travers’ quirky-bordering-on-caustic conversations with her chauffeur or the musicians and the co-scriptwriter of Mary Poppins, her reluctant visit to Disneyland with Walt and her subsequent quiet enjoyment of the merry-go-round therein, her nearly magical transformation from a cantankerous fussy writer to a visibly delighted soul lost in the rhapsody of the film’s original music score, her troubled, lonely nights at her hotel where her past resurfaces time and again—scenes such as these and many more weave a steady stable background and make an effective contrast to the highly strung sensitivity of the main theme in the foreground of the narrative. The screenplay overall is a wonderful mishmash of the delicate and the robust, and the dialogues deserve special attention on more than one occasion. Examples abound like the scene where Travers’ chauffeur asks her, “Do you want me to drive you home, Missus”? To which a visibly upset Travers answers ‘All the way to England? Yes, please!” or the scene where in Disneyland, a disgruntled Travers asks Walt Disney, “Do you always get everything you want, Walter?” “Well, pretty much,” smiles Walt. “With the exception of the rights to my books, of course,” Pamela Travers points out with distinct sadistic pleasure, to which Walt, with a generous dash of gallant charm to his customary sangfroid as he takes her hand, says, “Well, worrying over you, Pam. Worrying over you”.
Rare is the delight (which any film fanatic worth her/his salt would revel in) of watching your favourite actor deliver a performance par excellence. There can be no greater joy on this earth for a viewer than that of watching your most venerated idol of an actor do it again in his or her own apparently effortless way—breathe life into paper; make a storybook character come alive as a flesh and blood human being, merging subtexts and identities across the real and the imaginary world all along. I virtually experienced a dramatic epiphany watching the two masters of the craft, Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks, as they engaged in their dance of histrionic harmony in the film. The convergence of these gigantic geniuses resulted in the bringing out—to flawless perfection—of several ‘you-would-have-never-known-they-even-existed’ nuances in the dynamics between a self-made, larger than life movie Mogul, a veritable impersonation of the great American Dream, and an eccentric straitlaced Australian-turned English author facing penury and emotional destruction with an upper lip whose stiffness, however, would have cut steel. Tom Hanks seemed to have had lesser meat to chew in his preparation for his role as Walt, more so possibly due to studio restrictions from the contemporary Disney owners; however, he still portrays with his sheer brilliance a thoughtful, street smart, quietly determined, steady, dependable, growing-from the-ranks individual behind the bluster and fanfare of the public figure Walt Disney had to carry in his lifetime, deftly combining the two in course of the film. Emma Thompson, of course, with her trademark dogged hard work in getting under the skin of a character, pulls out all stops depicting the variant shades of complexity, insecurity and desolation and pride while portraying P.L. Travers.
The overall credibility of the film is also enhanced (to me, at least) in its ability to stay so close to the actual reality. Individuals who have both read the book ‘Mary Poppins’ as well as watched the film would realize that Mary Poppins in the book, and Mary Poppins in the film are indeed invested with diametrically opposite qualities; the former being no-nonsense and grounded despite ‘flying in through a window’ while the latter is shown to be ‘cavorting—and twinkling’ with chimney sweeps and animated penguins. Film critics would also know that the screen representation of Mary Poppins with her supposedly enforced juvenile jollity was a deliberate maneuvering on the part of the Disney Studios and Walt Disney himself, in keeping with the studio’s feel-good ethos, and P.L. Travers did actually have the strongest reservations against it all. However, as one comes to the end of ‘Saving Mr Banks’ and watches P.L Travers break down into tears while watching Mary Poppins on its Premiere night, one realizes that as a viewer, it is always the end that matters. And however different the Mary Poppins of Disney happens to be from the Mary Poppins of Travers, in the end, they both do what they were created for. They save Mr Banks.
A film that truly deserved every single award it won, and all those ones it did not.