Skip to main content

Poor A. A. Milne. What a ghastly business.

Saving Mr. Banks
(2013)

The absolutely true story of how P. L. Travers came to allow Walt Disney to adapt Mary Poppins, after 20 years’ persistent begging on the latter’s part. Except, of course, it isn’t true at all. Walt has worked his magic from beyond the grave over a fairly unremarkable tale of mutual disagreement. Which doesn’t really matter if the result is a decent movie that does something interesting or though-provoking by changing the facts… Which I’m not sure it does. But Saving Mr. Banks at least a half-decent movie, and one considerably buoyed by the performances of its lead actors.


Actually, Mr. Banks is buoyed by the performances of its entire cast. It’s the script that frequently lets the side down, laying it on thick when a lighter touch is needed, repeating its message to the point of nausea. And bloating it out not so neatly to the two-hour mark when the story could have been wrapped up quite nicely in a third less time. The title itself could perhaps be seen as rubbing Walt’s nose in his ignorance of the point of Travers’ novel, and it should be credited with being much less literal than the movie itself. Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith wrote Saving Mr. Banks, the former since having gone on to far greater things with the script for Fifty Shades of Grey. I can quite see their logic in padding out the screenplay and instilling emotional resonance/journey for Travers by flashing back to her turn of the century experiences in Australia with an alcoholic father. The problem is, the integration of these elements is so unrefined and schematic, and the imagery and transitions chosen by John Lee Hancock are so banal, it’s only the fine work of the actors that hold it together.


Colin Farrell is tremendous as P.L.’s father, an idealised figure whose alcoholism facilitates his encouragement of his daughter’s escape into fantasy and imagination (the line “It’s hardly Yeats, is it?” is heartbreaking; the writers presumably know Travers later met Yeats). This is very one-note, cause-and-effect storytelling as edited into the finished film. Any given event segues into PL’s reminiscence of another instance where her doting dad creates some whacky scenario while sidling a wee dram when no one but his wife notices (Ruth Wilson is great in everything, but she has little to work with here outside of disapproving looks).


The writers nearly have their cake and eat when Walt shows up at Travers’ door late in the day to philosophise over how much better it would be to have a life that isn’t dictated by the past. So that’s why Travers can’t stop thinking about daddy! The problem is, stating this doesn’t give a free pass to a nuance-free narrative. Some praise is nevertheless due to approaching and depicting alcoholism in a family film without resort to exaggeration, distortion or softening; it gets points for its child’s eye view of the glamour of a father who his high on fumes. Points deducted, though, for the magical salve that works its effect on Travers when she sees the finished Disney production. She is transformed from a rigid old maid into a weeping mess, so affected by Walt’s interpretation of the dear papa she put in her pages (this is already after she has been induced to dance to “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” because of the emotions it stirs; on-the-nose doesn’t begin to describe this script or Hancock’s ignorance of subtlety).


Like I say, I can’t get up in arms over the lack of fidelity to actual events; I love quite enough movies that hold little relation to their historical counterparts for that to be a weak argument.  But I can resist the will to schmaltz that Mr. Banks teeters towards, even while providing some relief in Travers’ caustic edge. It also requires buying into the notion that the Disney movie is an unadulterated classic and, well; it’s okay (I’m not having a particular go, and it has a couple of great songs, but it was never one of my favourites). This state of affairs does make you wonder who is exerting more afterlife pull right now, though. Travers is probably pretty pissed she’s been made out as a victim of such easy homespun psychology. She’s even inspired to write again by her interaction with Disney Studios, and goes from loathing plush toys to hugging them and holding hands with a git in a Mickey costume at the film premiere. And how appropriate that someone so haughty ends up enjoying the simple pleasure of the company of a gormlessly upbeat chauffeur (Paul Giamatti, effortlessly likeable even when his character is composed of treacle-backed cardboard).


But Emma Thompson’s Travers is not her real-life counterpart. That much is abundantly clear from the not-so-loveable deep down contemporary audio recordings we hear over the end credits. Thompson makes us believe Travers might be truly affected by Let’s Go Fly A Kite, that she’s the sort of person who would actually say “You’re the only American I’ve ever liked, Ralph”. Conversely her, steely dismissiveness in the early stages is accompanied by such pithy putdowns at the gaudiness around her, it’s very easy to be on her side. Her vocal disdain for Disney’s “silly cartoons” to his face (in real life she never forgave him for putting animation in the film) is very funny. Her put down of Robert Sherman (B. J. Novak) on learning he got shot (“Hardly surprising”) is the kind of thing curt one liner at which Thompson thrives, and we appreciate Travers as something of a defender of the faith against Hollywood homilies in the form of Disney.


Lending sterling support are Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, Rachel Griffiths, Annie Rose Buckley and Kathy Baker. But it’s Hanks’ rapport with Thompson that makes this movie work. As a director, Hancock is at his best when he’s letting the actors just get on with it; it’s when he tries to get all painterly and creative (notable in the Oz scenes) that the joins start to show. Disney should be quite as irritating as Travers finds him, but you can’t not like Tom Hanks. He makes you believe in such a good ol’ boy cornball anti-Semite. And that he actually can whittle down someone with the impenetrable veneer of Travers. These scenes are the best in the movie (Farrell, great as he is, deserved a director who could treat his section as more than a counterpoint), and when it comes to Walt’s great powers of persuasion during his sermon on the power of forgiveness, we’ll buy into it for all its cloying gracelessness because its Tom who tells us so.


So, while I don’t especially appreciate the shameless manipulation, Saving Mr. Banks goes down quite agreeably. The sugar is sickly sweet, and the medicine may induce unknown side effects, but there’s a good solid spoonful of acting talent delivering the mixture. Thomas Newman deserves a good shake for inflicting perky, jaunty, building, unstoppable music throughout (we just know this will end well for all concerned!) and Hancock needs an editor, any editor. But any Disney film that acknowledges (however indirectly) the horrors redesigning and rebranding inflicted on Winnie the Pooh (irreversibly) can’t be completely in thrall to the Mouse House.


***

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

To survive a war, you gotta become war.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) (SPOILERS?) I’d like to say it’s mystifying that a film so bereft of merit as Rambo: First Blood Part II could have finished up the second biggest hit of 1985. It wouldn’t be as bad if it was, at minimum, a solid action movie, rather than an interminable bore. But the movie struck a chord somewhere, somehow. As much as the most successful picture of that year, Back to the Future , could be seen to suggest moviegoers do actually have really good taste, Rambo rather sends a message about how extensively regressive themes were embedding themselves in Reaganite, conservative ‘80s cinema (to be fair, this is something one can also read into Back to the Future ), be those ones of ill-conceived nostalgia or simple-minded jingoism, notional superiority and might. The difference between Stallone and Arnie movies starts right here; self-awareness. Audiences may have watched R ambo in the same way they would a Schwarzenegger picture, but I’m

You were a few blocks away? What’d you see it with, a telescope?

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s first serial-killer screenplay to get made, The Eyes of Laura Mars came out nearly three months before Halloween. You know, the movie that made the director’s name. And then some. He wasn’t best pleased with the results of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which ended up co-credited to David Zelag Goodman ( Straw Dogs , Logan’s Run ) as part of an attempt by producer Jon Peters to manufacture a star vehicle for then-belle Barbra Streisand: “ The original script was very good, I thought. But it got shat upon ”. Which isn’t sour grapes on Carpenter’s part. The finished movie bears ready evidence of such tampering, not least in the reveal of the killer (different in Carpenter’s conception). Its best features are the so-uncleanly-you-can-taste-it 70s New York milieu and the guest cast, but even as an early example of the sub-genre, it’s burdened by all the failings inherit with this kind of fare.

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

You don’t know anything about this man, and he knows everything about you.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s two-decades-later remake of his British original. It’s undoubtedly the better-known version, but as I noted in my review of the 1934 film, it is very far from the “ far superior ” production Truffaut tried to sell the director on during their interviews. Hitchcock would only be drawn – in typically quotable style – that “ the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional ”. For which, read a young, creatively fired director versus one clinically going through the motions, occasionally inspired by a shot or sequence but mostly lacking the will or drive that made the first The Man Who Knew Too Much such a pleasure from beginning to end.

One final thing I have to do, and then I’ll be free of the past.

Vertigo (1958) (SPOILERS) I’ll readily admit my Hitchcock tastes broadly tend to reflect the “consensus”, but Vertigo is one where I break ranks. To a degree. Not that I think it’s in any way a bad film, but I respect it rather than truly rate it. Certainly, I can’t get on board with Sight & Sound enthroning it as the best film ever made (in its 2012’s critics poll). That said, from a technical point of view, it is probably Hitch’s peak moment. And in that regard, certainly counts as one of his few colour pictures that can be placed alongside his black and white ones. It’s also clearly a personal undertaking, a medley of his voyeuristic obsessions (based on D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac).

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.