Friday, December 20, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks: Deplorably heartless

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rating: PG-13, and needlessly, for "unsettling images"

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.20.13

Pamela Lyndon Travers published Mary Poppins in 1934, and quickly followed it with Mary Poppins Comes Back. Shortly before the series’ third book arrived, she was approached by Walt Disney and his older brother, Roy, about bringing her character to the big screen.

As screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) sinks ever further into his chair,
P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) painstakingly nitpicks the proposed script for
Mary Poppins, questioning increasingly inane details such as the placement of
punctuation marks.
She declined.

Walt, never one to surrender easily, persisted. Indeed, he persisted for roughly two decades, at which point a crack appeared in Travers’ armor.

Director John Lee Hancock’s rather unusual film, Saving Mr. Banks, suggests that financial necessity drove Travers to contemplate Disney’s offer. This seems a reasonable assumption; Travers’ literary output inexplicably stopped in 1953, shortly after the series’ fourth entry, Mary Poppins in the Park. (Travers also wrote other books in between.)

Scripters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith had at least four biographies from which to fashion their narrative, along with a 2002 Australian television documentary (The Shadow of Mary Poppins) and the voluminous recordings and internal documents made during Travers’ two-week visit to the Disney Studios, in the spring of 1961. We therefore can assume reasonable historical accuracy, although — this being a Disney production — the portrait can’t help being shaded in favor of Uncle Walt.

All that said, unknowing viewers are likely to be quite surprised by this film, and perhaps not in a good way. Everybody will bring iconic memories of the cheery 1964 musical, with its effervescent songs and marvelous star turns by Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. Hancock’s film, in great contrast, is a serious downer: frequently depressing and, ultimately, unforgivably mean-spirited.

Emma Thompson is a precise, highly skilled performer who never wastes a word or gesture, and her take on Travers brings new meaning to the word “shrew.” The author depicted here is arrogant, boorish, condescending and hyper-critical to a degree that suggests mental illness. She demands polite behavior from others but gives none in return. One searches in vain for kindness.

This film’s split narrative — the other half taking place during a crucial year of Travers’ childhood, in rural Australia in 1906 — offers ample reason for the impregnable, emotionally withdrawn shell she’d construct, as an adult; it’s a saga of great sorrow, and we grieve for this little girl, played to apple-cheeked perfection by young Annie Rose Buckley.

By the same token, we understand — despite the tempestuous “courtship struggle” between Travers and Disney (Tom Hanks) — that this saga must have a “happy” conclusion, in the sense that the filmed version of Mary Poppins obviously gets made, eventually wafting home with five of its 13 Academy Award nominations.

But no amount of third-act softening on Travers’ part — and it’s rather minimal, at that — can compensate for spending two hours in the company of this bitter, loathsome and openly hostile soul. Thompson plays her too well; Disney and his colleagues emerge as saints for having put up with her during this crucial fortnight.

Our reaction tends toward embarrassed laughter; we cannot help chuckling over behavior that is so jaw-droppingly nasty and breathtakingly dismissive. Hancock ensures such a reaction by frequently cutting away to stunned, agape reaction shots of those skewered by — or within earshot of — Travers’ vicious tirades.

The underlying message here is obvious: Travers never, ever should have done that deal with Disney. Her vision of Mary Poppins obviously meant too much to her, and that’s fine; plenty of authors have resisted Hollywood’s siren song. But having decided to sell her soul, regardless of circumstance, decorum obviously demands that Travers should have graciously accepted the inevitable and played nice.

Obviously, that didn’t happen.

The bulk of Travers’ time in Los Angeles is spent with the proposed film’s creative team: screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman). Disney is an occasional hovering presence; he drifts in only when summoned ... which occurs with increasing frequency.

The rub is that Travers has withheld signing the contract pending her assumption of absolute creative control, a phrase she takes far more literally than Disney, who keeps assuming that she won’t be interested in various production details. In fact, she finds fault with everything; she refuses the notion of songs, adamantly rejects any hint of animation, insists that the proposed Banks home — where Mary Poppins will arrive to work her magic — looks too “aristocratic,” and even objects to the fact that Mr. Banks will sport a mustache (a detail personally requested by Disney).

Travers mocks the Sherman brothers at every turn, flatly rejecting their increasingly clever tunes. (They snagged two of those aforementioned Oscars.) At one point, she even insists that the film should be made without the color red, because — as Thompson insists, in her most patronizing manner — “I’ve simply gone off red.”

Ordinarily, that might be a funny line. But by this point, we’re so fed up with this character, that it’s merely further evidence that she belongs in a psyche ward.

On the other hand, back in Australia...

We meet young Pamela — nicknamed Ginty — and her family just as her father moves them out of, yes, aristocratic lodgings and into a run-down farm in the wilderness community of Allora. The back-story is sketched economically; Ginty’s father, Travers Robert Goff (Colin Farrell), is an alcoholic dreamer who has trouble keeping a job, hence their current economic misfortune. His wife, Margaret (Ruth Wilson), likely married beneath her station, no doubt seduced by his silver-tongued Irish charm.

But Ginty doesn’t perceive these failings ... at least, not initially. In her worshipful eyes, her father is a magical storyteller who can make an adventure of anything, such as catching a wayward chicken. Farrell is excellent in this role, his soulful eyes and hangdog expression never completely concealed by the enthusiasm and false bravado with which he seduces his favorite daughter.

In time, our hearts break as Ginty gradually perceives, embarrassing incident by embarrassing incident, her father’s true nature.

Wilson’s Margaret is a shattered woman, well past her breaking point: unable to cope with her husband or properly control their three children. We never see Wilson smile, not really; her features always are a portrait of misery.

Eventually, we meet Margaret’s sister, Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths), the figure on whom the budding author will base her most famous character. And, indeed, Griffiths makes Ellie a stern, no-nonsense disciplinarian: as far a cry from Julie Andrews’ Mary Poppins as one could imagine. With Ellie’s introduction — as these flashbacks begin to interweave with the adult Travers’ own memories, stirred up by her work with Disney — we also, finally, come to understand this film’s title.

Back in 1961, Paul Giamatti has a wonderful role as Ralph, the driver who chaperones Travers about Los Angeles, and the first victim of her waspish tongue. But Ralph is a gentle, forgiving and understanding soul; Giamatti allows us to see that Ralph registers Travers’ ill manners, but never comments on them ... and not merely because it’s not his place. Better than anybody else in this story, he understands the demons driving Travers, and doesn’t judge. Giamatti is marvelous in this part: definitely the film’s badly needed soul.

Novak and Schwartzman make a great tag-team as the Sherman brothers, and we get a strong sense of how songs evolve; the two young actors definitely make us believe in the collaborative process at work. Whitford’s long-suffering silences are to die for. Kathy Baker should have been granted more screen time as Tommie, one of Disney’s advisors; Melanie Paxson is a hoot as Dolly, one of Disney’s secretary/assistants.

All of which brings us to Hanks, whose portrayal of Disney is as warm and affectionate as the public image many of us grew up with, in the late 1950s and early ’60s. We get a strong sense of Disney’s growing frustration with Travers, while at the same time recognizing that he regards this as a challenge to be overcome. And, no question, you’ll get misty-eyed during a climactic conversation Disney has with the intractable writer, when Hanks pours on every ounce of his considerable charisma. The moment may be a strawberry-lensed depiction of Disney as Charm Personified, but it’s no less magical.

Not that it compensates for the film’s core flaw, which is its remorselessly vicious depiction of Travers. If any of these details are exaggerated — if any part of Thompson’s performance steps beyond established fact — then Marcel and Smith’s script amounts to character assassination, with the actual author no longer able to defend herself.

At the very least, the suggested happily-ever-after conclusion here is misleading, if not an outright cheat. Ample evidence points to Travers' unhappiness over the finished film, and she nursed the resulting grudge for the rest of her life. She rebuffed Disney's subsequent offers for another film; when impresario Cameron Macintosh approached her regarding what eventually became the 2004 stage musical adaptation, her various stipulations included an insistence that nobody from the Disney film — including the Sherman brothers — could be involved.

And it's probably not coincidental that she began writing again in 1963, no doubt to prevent "financial stress" from ever again putting her in such a position. She completed four more books in the Mary Poppins series, along with a few one-offs, and concluded her literary career with 1989's Mary Poppins and the House Next Door. She died in 1996, at the impressive age of 96.

Alternatively, if the details within Hancock's new film are wholly accurate — more or less — one can’t help feeling that it exists solely to burnish Disney’s genial grandfatherly image, at the expense of tarnishing the author of a beloved series of children’s books. Which leaves an unpleasant taste in our mouths.

And seems a shamefully rotten reason to make a movie.

1 comment:

  1. I find it interesting that you and I dislike the movie for almost entirely opposite reason. Yes, Thompson's portrayal does tend to lend itself to raise the bar on the notion of a shrew. Kristin has been reading me up on many of the details of Traver's life and I find it disturbingly odd that such a person could tell a story like Poppins. That said, the main problem I have with the film also comes from my wife's influence.

    Before I came out to California, Disney was a brand name to me. Since I've met my wife, my education on the man has gained in depth and scope as a testament to my wife's Disneyphelia. My problem with the film isn't from Thompson or Travers, but that I never once saw dear old Uncle Walt in there. I saw Tom Hanks. And no matter what tricks he tried and how much charm he put in (both in nearly epic degrees), he just wasn't, and could never BE Walt.

    I have no blame for Hanks in this. To say he's a talented actor is to be insulting and dismissive, and his Oscars would beg to differ greatly. But I think Hanks was given a part that was more like an impossible mission. Only Walt could be Walt if you're old enough to remember him. He's so much an icon that even a really epically talented actor like Hanks could only give you a good impression. That was the heartbreak for me. I really really wanted Hanks to nail it. I was rooting for him, only to be let down. My wife was right on one point: Who COULD you get to play Walt and do it right? I have no answer for that. I know Hanks tried, but it's a swing and a miss with me.