Tuesday, 26 November 2013

FILM REVIEW: Saving Mr Banks

A well acted, tightly plotted chronicle of the adaptation of Mary Poppins is let down by middlebrow frivolity and condescension

Films about the creation process of much loved film adaptations always have it tough, I think, because of how close we hold them to our heart. It is because of this that even if an adapted film went through development hell, might have been worse than the source material and possibly even angered the author, one cannot help but root for both the film to exist and the author to approve it in the end. After all, it won us over, so why shouldn't it win over the author too?

Saving Mr Banks, as well acted, tightly plotted and lushly presented it may be, falls foul of this malaise. Using a dual layered narrative that takes place in the 1900s and 1960s, respectively, it charts brief but significant spells in the life of PL Travers, played by Annie Buckley as an idealistic child and Emma Thompson as a cynical adult.

Having written the infamous Mary Poppins character as both vain and stern, Travers is understandably frightened by what Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) will do to Poppins on screen. Hence, even after two decades' worth of effort, she can't bear to grant him the rights. But Travers needs the money, and Disney is nothing if not persistent, making Travers' reluctant journey to Hollywood inevitable.

When she arrives in the USA, director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) regularly begins applying "human" flashbacks of Travers' youth alongside a "self-aware" chronicle of the film-making process, featuring the legendary Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) and some of their equally legendary jingles. It is fun to watch, but creates a tone that is problematic; serious family drama meets bittersweet whimsy. Neither time period seems fully certain of itself.

One could easily surrender to the fantasy of the picture and the well-structured plot, but when Hancock wants us to take things more seriously, the film fails to fully convince. As Travers' alcoholic father and troubled mother, respectively, Colin Farrell and Ruth Wilson give their cardboard characters far more respect than they deserve. Similarly, Emma Thompson is so convincing as a cartoonish, closed off snob that the inevitable cracking of her facade, even to a point, isn't entirely believable. Only in the company of her chauffeur Ralph (Paul Giamatti) does the humanity genuinely come through.

Tom Hanks is another problem. Forget Disney's distribution of Saving Mr Banks for a moment – Hanks' presence all but guarantees that the slimy and crass aspects of Walt Disney will be whitewashed. Hanks just doesn't do slimy; it is inevitable that he will make Disney, for the most part, a familial and rather likable figure. It doesn't have to be this way; Colin Firth's George VI, Liam Neeson's Oskar Schindler and Jesse Eisenberg's Mark Zuckerberg were little or nothing like their real-life counterparts, but the actors inhabited their characters so well that they were able to create them in their own image in the context of the film. Because of the routine script and his personality, Hanks cannot quite do so, giving the whole production a slight uneasy feel.

And yet, when we hear about and understand how dear the characters in Mary Poppins are to PL Travers, the film works, albeit fleetingly, as a telling commentary about how easily we can get sucked in to picking holes in "crass", modern entertainment, while forgetting that the entertainments we hold so dear are imperfect themselves. Saving Mr Banks also reminds us how childhood can be both enriching and tarnishing at once, how a little "Disneyfication" can do no harm when applied properly, and how genuine achievements can emerge in spite of the potentially damaging effects of commercialisation. (Look at Finding Nemo.)

But even then, Saving Mr Banks cannot escape the middlebrow frivolity and condescension that permeates it, most evidently in the drawn out scene where Disney finally convinces Travers to sell him the rights. As one sits and watches Hanks-Disney try to help Thompson-Travers realise what's truly important for her, one cannot help but be reminded of four lines spoken by Dick Van Dyke to David Tomlinson in Mary Poppins itself:

"You've got to grind, grind, grind at that grindstone
Though child 'ood slips like sand through a sieve

And all too soon they've upped and grown and then they've flown
"And it's too late for you to give."

A far more brisk and elegant way of delivering a similar message that Saving Mr Banks (or should that be Saving Mrs Travers?) takes so long to get across. If only Hancock and the screenwriters had learned more of the right lessons from their chief inspiration.