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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

Saving Mr. Banks

Or: Before it all goes Pear Shaped

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times and I’ll say it a thousand more: there is no artist, no, none, with quite the shine of Emma Thompson. She wears her characters like a second skin, animating them with the same unstudied air she would give herself. Yet for all her effortlessness she’s always got them down to a lip quiver or an eyelids twitch, an individually crafted verbal dart or one in a dozen varieties of dismissive sniffs. Some actors trick themselves into convincing themselves they are their character completely. Thompson has no time for such sportive tricks, she does the more difficult job of convincing US that she is her character completely.

In Saving Mr. Banks, Thompson pulls out her full carpet bag of quivers and sniffs to play Ms. P.L. Travers, curmudgeonmeister and author of the world beloved children's book Mary Poppins. In need of money and after twenty years of persistent pestering Travers acquiesces to travel from London to Los Angeles to meet with her relentless (creative) suitor Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) to see if her characters can be made to live on screen. Unimpressed with the effusiveness of her host nor the whimsey of her co-creators, Don Digradi (Bradley Whitford) or Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwatrzman and B.J. Novak) and with only the friendship of her driver (Paul Giamatti) to convince her that Americans have any redeeming attributes at all, Travers becomes more and more convinced that she can’t sell her characters, her only family, to the madman and his mouse. Yet even between their rehearsal room battles Travers is plagued by memories of her childhood in rural Australia, her alcoholic father (Colin Ferrell) and her aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths), the woman who came to save him.

Saving Mr. Banks is a marvelous film, but it would be better if it new what kind of film it meant to be.*** What it finally settles on is a story about storytelling, and about who gets to tell who’s story. About whether that story can turn into a lash or a balm for a sick soul. About whether a story should be used to face facts or cover from the darkness in the world. About whether it should be told truthfully with good grammar or with lots of songs and cartoon penguins. Unfortunately the film doesn’t quite grasp that and we have a tendency to shimmer between a bitter turn of the century after school special, and a painfully, but sparklingly, awkward british board room comedy before settling down to the good stuff.

It’s certainly a well dressed film what ever it is. Cinematographer John Schwartzman and director John Lee Hancock have an love of details, ‘Minerva in the Minutia’, and join scriptwriters Marcel and Smith in painting in as many verbal and visual references to Mary Poppins as they can fit. The “let’s go fly a kite” scoring scene, with its reverent foot focus, is enough to give buoyancy to even the most leaden audience member.

Thompson is given, and gives, her best with Travers simpering barbs, at one moment downright cruel and tyrannical writer to frightened, grieving little girl trapped in an elders body. Hanks too excels as a storyteller once you chip past the veneer of folksy charm he’s painted the character with. But the most loving depiction's and some excellent performances are reserved for the Americans: Whitford’s battered cheerfulness and obvious love of his job, the interplay of Schwartzman and Novack, and Giamatti’s careworn pride in driving around this frosty english broad for Mr. Disney. The film is worth the price of admission alone to see Thompson and Giamatti, titans over the pond, sit and make leaf houses together on Disney's lawn.

Sadly, not all performances measure up. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said if a hundred times and I’ll say it a thousand more: Ferrell is an irksome artist. He’s an unconvincing drunk, an unconvincing Australian, and an unconvincing favored father. It’s just sad to see him cruse down his time in the film, passing exits where he could have pulled off a great performance. Sadder still is fifteen minutes max we glimpse of Griffiths work, (just like Julie Andrews, but darker, sharper, and a touch more regal) before she is whisked away out of the picture. Such a waste.

In real life the events the film describes really did go pear shaped, i.e. horribly wrong, and Travers became Disney's life long enemy and darkest bitterest foe. But it’s nice to imagine that beyond the shipwreck of this ill fated partnership there was some treasure washed up on the shore of Disney’s and Traver’s lives unnoticed by their biographers but held close by them as individuals. It is these treasures, born about on the waves of might have been, that we have come to see. We have to wait about for them quite a bit, though wrapped in the warm comfort of Hancock’s lush world and Thomas Newman’s entwining score, the real dignity and genius of the film pokes up from the sand. However, if you can sit through Ferrell’s playacting you will be rewarded by a spoonful of Thompson, Thompson in her icy English glory, doing what she does best. And if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred and one times, no one does Best like her.

*** Mary Poppins is not subject to this wishy washiness. In fact it has two kinds of films that it fits into and keeps spinning simultaneously: an atypical Western (Mysterious Stranger arrives to make the best of a bad situation by unorthodox means, then leaves the yokels to enjoy their labors) and an insanely brilliant Secular Passion Play (if you accept having your button hole plucked and your hat and brollie despoiled as an Edwardian Crucifixion).

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