saving_mr_banksIn September of 1999, I saw American Beauty in a cinema in Cambridge, MA. A few months later, I saw it again in Glasgow. The dreaded C word crops up in it, and I remember being surprised at the different reactions to this one sweary word between the American and Scottish audiences. In the US, there were gasps of shock. In Glasgow, they laughed.

In Saving Mr Banks, the latest effort from director John Lee Hancock, Emma Thompson’s portrayal of P L Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins, made me wonder if there would be a similar difference in reaction on either side of the Atlantic.

P L Travers isn’t very nice, you see. In fact, she’s a bit of a cow. And she’s English (kinda). So she doesn’t care about being rude. And she’s very rude. And every time she was rude, the audience was utterly shocked. I got the feeling that people were giving serious thought to walking out, such was the level of impoliteness. I can’t imagine a Glaswegian audience taking it so badly, although I can imagine them muttering something under their collective breaths about typical bloody English.

The movie details the rather difficult relationship between P L Travers and Walt Disney (a very convincing Tom Hanks) over the rights to make Mary Poppins. Disney has been coaxing and cajoling Travers for twenty years, desperate to make the movie and fulfill a promise to his daughters who had fallen in love with Travers’ book. For her part, Travers hates cartoons, musicals, and pretty much everything Disney stands for. She insists on being involved in the script-writing process and that every interaction she has with anyone at Disney is taped. Disney does his best to placate her, but knowing what we know about Mary Poppins, we know that there’s going to be a clash of heads and someone is going to have to back down. Between all this, Travers frequently thinks back to her childhood in Australia and the relationship she had with her alcoholic father (played rather too excitedly, too animatedly and too over the top for my liking by Colin Farrell).

The general set up gives me a wee problem. I had a similar issue round about this time last year with Hitchcock which told the story behind the making of Psycho. We all know Psycho got made and was a success. Here, we know Mary Poppins got made and whether Travers liked it or not, it has animation and songs. Actually, it has lots of both. So the drama can’t exist in terms of whether the movie gets made or whether the rights get signed over. Instead, it needs to exist in terms of how Walt Disney managed to change Travers’ mind. In that respect, the movie does deliver that pivotal moment but it feels strangely underplayed and telegraphed through the flashback sequences and, to a lesser extent, the line “It’s not about saving the kids” and the actual movie’s title. When the movie ended, I felt as though I had been bashed with the movie’s thematic intentions to the point where a flock of animated bluebirds were on the verge of doing laps of my head.

This complaint aside shouldn’t detract from the fact that both Hanks and Thompson put in stunning performances. Thompson already has a Golden Globe nomination and it’s hard to imagine her not getting an Oscar equivalent. Hanks is surprisingly believable as Disney. Both are backed up well by the supporting case. Paul Giamatti who plays Travers’ driver and Anne Rose Buckley as the young Travers are both wonderful in completely different ways.

Director Hancock keeps the mood light for the most part, genuinely funny in many places, and he saves the tear magnet for just the right moment. However, he does seem to rely too heavily on the flashback sequences to tell his story and ensure we all get it.

Is it the best movie I’ve seen this year? Well, no. Is it the best movie I’ve seen this week? That would also be a no. Overall though, it’s a very decent way to spend a couple of hours, the journey is enjoyable despite the lack of surprises and by the end, I suspect you’ll feel pretty good, despite a moistening of the corner of the eye, regardless of which side of the Atlantic you happen to find yourself.

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