Part culture clash comedy and part poignant true-life drama, ‘Saving Mr Banks’ proved to be a classy, if safe, pick for the London Film Festival’s closing gala last week.
Starring Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as Mary Poppins author PL Travers, it centres on the battle between the two protagonists during the making of the classic Oscar-winning movie.
Having refused all approaches to turn her beloved book into a film for 20 years, Travers is eventually forced to give into the persistent Disney. She travels to Los Angeles to work on the script, battling on all fronts to protect her nanny heroine and adopted family from saccharine songs and animated fripperies.
The reasons for her near-pathological defensiveness become clear in a series of flashbacks concerning a troubled childhood in the Australian outback. Colin Farrell plays her well-meaning but weak father, whose alcoholism casts a shadow over both Travers’ life and the film itself.
Farrell is terrific, as are a supporting cast including Paul Giamatti, Bradley Whitford and Jason Schwartzman as a trio of writers tasked with satisfying the spiky incomers’ wishes. “I don’t want any red in the film”, she insists at one point to their obvious chagrin.
But it’s Hanks and Thompson who really bring the film to life, particularly in their many scenes together. The dialogue sparkles and fizzes as the odd couple strive for dominance in the ongoing battle for the soul of Mary Poppins.
Hanks plays Disney as everybody’s favourite uncle, fully inhabiting the larger-than-life legend. The only concession to his infamous darker side is a liking for cigarettes and whisky. It would be easy to criticise this cynical whitewashing of history (Disney were involved in the making of the movie), but this isn’t a film about the founder of the House of Mouse. Instead its heart is with the forthright Travers and her battle with a past that refuses to die - echos of tragedy constantly colouring her view of the present.
It’s a fabulously nuanced performance by Thompson and is certain to make her an Oscar contender. Her snappy put-downs are at first cold and aloof, but as she starts to warm in the Californian sun her icy exterior melts to reveal a complex, likable and multi-faceted character.
Occasionally the parallels between the two time frames seem a little too neat, while the final scene lacks emotional heft (in no small part due to the appearance of Dick Van Dyke’s notorious ‘Cockney’ accent), but it’s still a wonderfully made and acted film which tells a fascinating story well.
On general release from November 29.