So who would have suspected that a whole heap of unresolved Daddy/daughter issues lay beneath the shiny, happy surface of … Mary Poppins? That’s the case put forward in John Lee Hancock’s funny, touching and surprisingly beguiling Saving Mr. Banks (the Closing Night film of this year’s London Film Festival) which dramatises the conflicts that arose from Walt Disney’s determination to bring P.L.Travers’s books to the cinema screen in a (now beloved) all-singin’, all-dancin’ form.
Hancock’s frankly Freudian take on these events pits its avuncular, wily Disney (Tom Hanks) against a prim, schoolmarmish, control freak Mrs. T. (Emma Thompson) as the Mouse man flies the fiercely reluctant - but cash-strapped - author out to Hollywood and tries to woo her for once and for all into signing over the rights to the Poppins books. Interspersed with these 1960s scenes - which find Travers wrangling with Disney and his creative team over the movie’s script, design, characterisation and casting (“Dick van Dyke is not one of the greats!” she protests) - are flashbacks to the writer’s childhood in turn-of-the-century Australia. Here, as the movie tells it, Travers’s early life with her eccentric, alcoholic pa (Colin Farrell) and put-upon mother (Ruth Wilson) sowed the seeds for her future literary creations.
Hancock made a botch of his previous outing The Blind Side but, working from an astute, affectionate script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, he gets the tone right in this new film, producing a movie about movie-making that avoids the various pitfalls of archness, cynicism or cosy self-adoration. That Saving Mr. Banks is a Walt Disney Production should alert you to the fact that the film isn’t the place to go to for a blistering critique of the Mouse House. Sure, Thompson’s Travers gets to whip out caustic denunciations of the Disney Empire as a crass, vulgarising, “dollar-printing machine” but Walt’s perspective that the work that both he and Travers does as storytellers “instils hope [in audiences] time and again” is finally the view that dominates.
Still, the film’s presentation of the pair’s interaction and the workings of the Disney studio proves nuanced enough. Starting out as nicely-done culture-clash comedy (“It smells like chlorine. And sweat” is Travers’s verdict on L.A. when she steps from the plane), the film digs deeper as it goes along, its points about adaptation and authorship developing in a great series of script-meeting scenes that find Travers’s tart, unforgiving personality testing the patience of toothy American geniality as represented by Mary Poppins’s screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and its composers the Sherman Brothers (Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak).
At the heart of the picture is a platonic male/female double act to place alongside the one in Philomena. But Hancock’s movie rings a whole lot richer and truer than Frears’s does; it’s actually made with some genuine feeling and sensibility. It also helps that, unlike Philomena, Saving Mr Banks feels thoroughly inhabited by other vivid, well-drawn characters – each of whom makes you grin a little every time they appear and who complement Hanks and Thompson’s well-judged turns in the lead roles. Hanks makes his twinkling Disney a man who knows that charm’s the best way to get what he wants, while Thompson (the spirit of Nanny McPhee constantly hovering) uses her crack comedy timing to cut through some of the movie’s more manipulative bits. The moment when her Travers charges into the boss’s office bellowing “Disney!” in scary low tones suggests a sensational Lady Bracknell in the actress’s future.
Throughout, Hancock proves himself adept at bringing out understated, intimate moments, especially in the scenes that show Travers’s loneliness and disorientation in L.A. and how those feelings pull her back into sometimes painful memories of her past. (The film’s flashback structure and literary-creation themes mark it out as a companion piece to Gavin Millar’s quirkier, Dennis Potter-scripted Dreamchild.) The Australia-set scenes initially look a tad too whimsical but they gain in grit, helped by Colin Farrell’s best screen performance in ages and the piercingly plaintive notes that Ruth Wilson strikes as Travers’s mother, a woman rendered increasingly desperate by her husband’s wayward actions.
Saving Mr. Banks has some shortcomings: in particular, the over-extended ending, set at the Poppins premiere, is fumbled. Elsewhere, though, scenes that, by rights, shouldn’t work come off: witness Travers’s tentative bonding with her sweet chauffeur (Paul Giamatti). Mostly, the film is lovely, and its centrepiece sequence - in which the frosty Travers finally thaws out when introduced to the delights of “Let’s Go Fly A Kite” - is as purely joyous a moment as 2013’s movies have offered.
Saving Mr Banks opens in the UK on 29th November.