Thinking about making a movie about making a movie can make your head hurt, though there have been some good films made as a result: Singing in the Rain, The Stunt Man, and last year’s best picture, Argo, would qualify as well. All the inner movies in those pictures, though, were fictitious. What happens when you’re making a movie about the creation of one of the most beloved films in the past 50 years? That’s what Saving Mr. Banks does, and the good news is it creates a haunting yet satisfying companion piece for the original.
Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) had sought the movie rights to “Mary Poppins” from its author, P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), for decades, after promising his children that he would put the story on the screen. Travers, though, resisted his advances. It was only when she faced a financial crisis after several years of not producing a new book that she considered Disney’s offer. But Travers is just as wilful as Disney and has a very strong sense of what is right for the story. They are much more alike than either will admit at first.
Slowly we begin to understand the depth of attachment Travers has with her character as we view the story of her childhood in Australia. Then she was Ginty Goff (Annie Rose Buckley) whose banker father Travers Goff (Colin Farrell) loses his job in one town and must move the family when he takes a position in a small community at the end of the railroad line. Goff has a gift for turning everything into an adventure for his children, but he also uses it to hide his alcoholism from them. It wears on his wife Margaret (Ruth Wilson), who feels trapped in the role of the only adult in the family.
The story of the influences that led Ginty to write Mary Poppins is contrasted with the cantankerous yet vulnerable adult she has become. Creating the script and the music became an ordeal for the Sherman brothers, Robert (B.J. Novak) and Richard (Jason Schwartzman). The story conferences were recorded at Travers’ insistence, and it’s worth staying for the credits, as a segment of one of those tapes is played. Robert Sherman remained traumatized by the ordeal until he served as a consultant for the production. When in the course of it he found out about Travers’ early life, he finally came to understand and forgive her. (He passed away in 2012.)
Director John Lee Hancock has become the go-to person for making films about true stories and not letting them slip into cheap sentimentality, as well as getting excellent performances out of his cast. He directed The Rookie in 2002, and in 2009 he did The Blind Side. Working from a script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, Hancock recreates both early 1900 Australia and 1960’s Los Angeles in beautiful detail. (Kudos also to production designer Michael Corenblith, whose shown his talent with creating historic settings in Apollo 13 and Frost/Nixon.) One nice touch is showing Disney hand out cards with his signature rather than signing autographs. The truth was that Disney couldn’t write his trademark signature.
It’s hard to come up with any new superlatives for Tom Hanks; his body of work on screen qualifies him as one of the greatest actors ever, and his performance as Disney adds to that résumé. The one who really carries the film, though, is Emma Thompson. It is a much more prickly performance than she’s given before, but beautifully realized, and you can see the young Ginty beneath the surface. As Ginty, Annie Rose Buckley delivers an awesome performance. After having only done one TV show a couple of years ago, she is completely at ease with the deeply emotional role. Farrell has found himself as a character actor, and he balances the charming rogue with the deeper weakness in Goff. Paul Giamatti gives a small gem of a performance as Ralph, the driver assigned to Travers by the Disney studio while she’s in Los Angeles, and Rachel Griffiths, who worked with Hancock on The Rookie, has a tiny but crucial role as Ginty’s Aunt Ellie.
Much has been made recently of what was left out of the movie in regards to both P.L. Travers and Walt Disney. Recently Meryl Streep delivered a major bashing of Disney while presenting an award to Thompson for her performance. Those who create – authors, directors, actors – have to learn what to leave out, or else every movie would be ten hours long, every novel would rival “War and Peace” in length, though not in quality. If you want to know all the details, there are biographies of Disney and Travers that cover their whole lives. Saving Mr. Banks is a tightly-focused and well-told tale that covers a portion of their very full lives, and it accomplishes that task with competence and skill. It will also likely have you in tears by the end, as it did me. That is a definite recommendation.