The great irony surrounding Saving Mr. Banks is inescapable: what started out as an exploration of the fight between Australian writer P. L. Travers, née Helen Goff, and Walt Disney over the film adaptation of her Mary Poppins novels, has become its own Disney movie - an airbrushed, Oscar-baiting prestige picture - when it could have, and should have, been so much more. Granted, it would have always been tricky to tell this true story without the involvement of the Disney studio, but did it really have to mean water the story down to a rather schematic, bowdlerized take on art as sublimation of personal life? Can, in fact, any work of art be merely reduced to a simple succession of cause and effect, of life experiences alchemically transformed into a roman à clef of personal connections?

     As posited by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith's script, the tale of dream nanny Mary Poppins and her influence in the household of London banker George Banks arose out of P. L. Travers' childhood in the Australian outback with a charming, loving but stifled father (Colin Farrell) unable to behave responsibly for the sake of his children; Walt Disney's connection to Travers' book, while undeniably personal, could have never reached the same heights for a controlling mind such as the writer. "Restoring order with imagination" is what they're both in the business of doing, as Disney (Tom Hanks) points out at one time in one of the discussions with Travers (Emma Thompson). And it would be perfectly fine, if both the script and John Lee Hancock's glossy but merely illustrative handling didn't intercut so diligently between the writer's culture-shock experiences while at Hollywood and her vivid recollections of her Australian childhood. In so doing, Saving Mr. Banks runs the risk of trivializing whatever magic Mary Poppins, both book and film, may still hold today - as so many Hollywood-backlot films run the risk of doing (Sacha Gervasi's entertaining but disposable Hitchcock comes to mind).

     That the film still holds one's interest over its slightly extended runtime may be attributed, first, to the scenes where Travers goes over the script and songs with screenwriter Don da Gradi (Bradley Whitford) and the Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B. J. Novak), the songwriters, which provide some interesting, curious insights into the actual creative process. Also to Paul Giamatti's wonderfully subdued supporting turn as Ralph, the cheerful driver hired by Disney to take the writer around, a beautifully low-key distillation of Mary Poppins' emotional subtext. And, finally but above all, to Emma Thompson's extraordinary portrayal of P. L. Travers, fleshing out the stern, curmudgeonly presence of the writer with a lifetime of pain and repressed emotions, staying always just the right side of melodrama and refusing to surrender to the manipulation the earlier, golden-hued scenes of Australian childhood aim for. Had Saving Mr. Banks followed Ms. Thompson's lead, then it would have been a much better film.

Cast: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, Annie Rose Buckley, Ruth Wilson, B. J. Novak, Rachel Griffiths, Kathy Baker
Director: John Lee Hancock
Screenplay: Kelly Marcel, Sue Smith
Cinematography (colour, widescreeen): John Schwartzman
Music: Thomas Newman
Designer: Michael Corenblith
Costumes: Daniel Orlandi
Editor: Mark Livolsi
Producers: Alison Owen, Ian Collie, Philip Steuer (Walt Disney Pictures, Ruby Films and Essential Media and Entertainment, in association with BBC Films, Hopscotch Features and Screen Australia)
United Kingdom/USA/Australia, 2013, 125 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1 (Lisbon), January 20th 2013

Nominated for the 2013 Academy Award for Best Original Music Score


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