Director: John Lee Hancock
Cast: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman
Running time: 125 min
Release: 29th November
The English thespian in Hollywood is usually there to take the money and run back out into the thoroughfare, preferably Oxford Street, collar up and hat brim pulled down. That’s been their story, at least. John Gielgud once said that Claude Rains “failed and went to America,” and that snobbery abides. Emma Thompson seems to be pretty comfortable with her Hollywood life, though Hugh Laurie probably had to call the set of Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang every other evening to tell her to lie there and think of England. And a favourable exchange rate.
In Saving Mr. Banks, Thompson plays P.L. Travers, author of the Mary Poppins books. As the film opens, her agent has just convinced her to sell the rights to Disney. Travers flies to LA to discuss the film’s pre-production with the film’s creative team – writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford from The West Wing) and songwriters the Sherman brothers (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman). Though, really, that’s only ostensibly the case; Travers’ actual intention is to thoroughly filibuster the proceedings. Her quibbles are endless – she hates songs and moustaches, and has an especial loathing for dancing penguins. There soon develops a standoff between the author and Walt Disney himself (Tom Hanks). A parallel storyline, in which we watch Travers growing up in rural Australia with her alcoholic father (Colin Farrell) and depressive mother (Ruth Wilson), trundles along beside the main plot.
We all know how things end, and almost none of Travers’ complaints end up getting upheld. Plus she wasn’t even invited to the premiere. Obviously the story had to be Disneyfied in order for the original footage and music to be used, not least to allow for a portrayal of the man himself. It demonstrates the power of the Disney-style story arc that an essentially unhappy story can be turned into a life-affirming one with a cheerful ending. The conclusion the film comes to is that Travers’ prickliness is as a result of daddy issues; a denouement so ridiculous that a spoonful of crack cocaine would not help this particular medicine go down. It’s up to the players, it seems. Paul Giamatti as a simple-minded chauffeur gives the film a semi-plausible emotional centre, and Hanks is capably amiable and jowly.
Still, it’s never a good idea to put capital T thespians in a film with actors used to wielding blunter instruments. Thompson has subtlety in spades – subtle spades. She’s a writer too, remember, and just watch Travers’ posture relax when she’s in her own company. Even when the script clearly expects Thompson to hit the Nanny McPhee button, there’s enough faux-theatricality in her gestures and eyebrow-raises to give the character a jolt of rounding self-awareness. Colin Farrell, however, has lately been too busy turning into Pierce Brosnan to do much in the way of acting. His accent is hopefully some paratextual comment on Van Dyke’s own golf balls-in-the-mouth approach to mimicry, because Farrell’s Travers Robert Goff sounds more like an FM104 DJ having a stroke than an English expat.
If there’s real drama in the story over the battle for the rights of Mary Poppins, Saving Mr. Banks doesn’t capture it. At Travers’ insistence, the heated conversations between her and Disney were recorded, and they still lie somewhere in the Disney vaults; perhaps they should go on general release instead.