Saving Mr Banks (PG)
Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson, Paul Giamatti
DIRECTOR JOHN LEE HANCOCK
REVIEW MARK NAGLAZAS
Most movies about Hollywood - no industry is more self-regarding - are soaked in cynicism and centred on the age-old clash between artistic vision and reality of commerce.
Preston Sturges' 1941 comic masterpiece Sullivan's Travels (the best picture you never saw) opens with a scintillating scene of verbal fireworks in which a director of a string of successful comedies tries to persuade his bosses to allow him to make a socially significant picture in the vein of Frank Capra (they say OK so long as he puts "a little sex in it").
And, more recently, in the Coen brothers' Barton Fink a successful New York playwright travels to Los Angeles in pursuit of fame and fortune and ends up toiling on "wrestling pictures". When he writes his masterpiece it is dismissed as "a fruity movie about suffering".
Saving Mr Banks, which is centred on the struggle of Walt Disney to convince curmudgeonly Australian-born author P.L. Travers to sell him the rights to her children's classic Mary Poppins, is a rare movie in which the clash of egos leads not only to a classic but paves the way for psychological healing and emotional growth.
It's quite a leap and, some have argued, the film is too idealistic, too self-serving and, considering Mary Poppins' most beloved song, too sugary (they have also been quick to point out that Travers was an even more prickly character than the one in the book and not quite as proper).
However, what this wonderfully well-judged movie reminds us of is that the happiest works of art can be dredged up from the murk, that Travers moulded Mary Poppins and specifically the character of Mr Banks from the trauma of her years growing up in rural Queensland with an alcoholic father.
In the strand of the film set in 1961 Travers (Emma Thompson with tight curls and bright red lips) travels to Los Angeles to spend two weeks working on the script of Mary Poppins with the Disney team, after which she may or may not sign over the movie rights to an anxious Walt (Tom Hanks).
Travers has resisted Disney's overtures for decades fearing that he would turn it into an all-singing, all-dancing fiasco and, worse, a cartoon. "These books simply do not lend themselves to chirping and prancing," she tells screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak.
While the studio employees cower in the face of the ultra-proper, anti-American Travers (she had long ago discarded her antipodean heritage and become more English than the English) Disney rolls over the top of her with his famed ebullience, dismissing her objections to the movie being a musical and forging ahead with the project.
Walt's charm offensive doesn't work around the piano, however, where the writers have to deal with Travers' ever-expanding list of objections, from minor script details to the casting. When it is announced that Dick Van Dyke will play Bert, Travers snorts (literally) her disapproval, citing Olivier, Burton and Gielgud as "great" actors not the lanky American song and dance man. It gradually becomes clear that Travers is not simply concerned with protecting her beloved story but the dark family history that informed it, most significantly her deep love for her father Travers Robert Goff (Colin Farrell), a charismatic bank manager and hopeless drunk who drove his wife to the brink of suicide.
While these extended flashback scenes tend to disrupt the flow of the picture they're worth their weight in gold in enriching the character of tightly wound Travers, who would never open up about the dark past she has sublimated in her stories (well, this is the very seductive argument made by the movie).
The tragedy behind Mary Poppins and her desire for "gravitas" in the proposed movie sets Travers on a collision course with Disney, who sees the role of art and entertainment completely differently. For him art should be a way of reshaping the darkness and chaos, a way of letting the past go.
Of course, the Disney/Travers clash probably never got to this level of self-awareness but it makes for a wonderfully rich movie, one in which writers Sue Smith (an Australian who did the early drafts) and Brit Kelly Marcel tease from the facts a story of deep psychological resonance and a stimulating examination of popular culture as the art of compromise.
Performances are superb all round, with Paul Giamatti touching as the limo driver who takes Travers from her hotel to the studio and shows her a sadder, less brash American. But the movie is essentially a two-hander, with an appropriately padded Hanks bringing just the right mix of bonhomie and businessman (and not a scrap of sentimentality) and Thompson never losing our empathy despite her stick-in-the- mud imperiousness. She communicates sadness even as she berates her gracious, long-suffering American hosts.
Saving Mr Banks is a thoroughly mainstream affair so naturally critics are dismissing it for heaping on the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down. But for me Mary Poppins' most cherished song is what Hollywood does at its very best, makes merry out of misery and helps us get by.