Imagination is a brilliant part of the human psyche. It delights; sometimes, it terrifies. But so often it provides escape from the darkness that life throws at us, transporting us through a portal and into a safe haven away from cruelty, awkwardness, and the inescapable realities of an imperfect life–or a tragic life. Saving Mr. Banks gives us a glimpse into the power of one such imagination: both shield and barrier, comfort and fortress wall–with a big “keep out” sign.
Lonely, anti-social Helen Goff (AKA P.L. Travers) conceived her iconic children’s book Mary Poppins not because of her love of children and an intention to entertain and dazzle them, but as a way to redeem her own broken life, and most especially her broken father, who died far too young. Saving Mr. Banks tells the (I understand) somewhat fictionalized account of how Mrs. Travers (a brilliant Emma Thompson) finally was able to let her pain float away through the magic of cinema–seeing her heroine Mary Poppins (never just Mary) save her father, as Mrs. Travers was never able to do in her own reality.
I saw Mary Poppins for the first time on a hot summer day when I was nine years old. The movie matinee was sold out and I remember sitting in the right aisle on the floor with hundreds of other kids to see it the day it was released. It dazzled despite the strangeness of Dick Van Dyke’s Cockney accent. Of course we all knew the children’s novel about the “practically perfect” nanny who came to the home of Jane and Michael Banks, upper middle class London children who were disregarded by their parents (with woes of their own) and living in the unstructured chaos of a suffragette mother and a bank manager father about to lose his job. Discipline, adroitly applied and sweetened by a spoonful of sugar was all the magic Mary Poppins needed.
But, as Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), who had pursued Mrs. Travers for 20 years for the rights to film her beloved novel, eventually understand, Mary Poppins is not about saving Jane and Michael at all. It is, as the title says outright, about saving their father–a man who has lost his ability to experience joy, chained to his job and the expectations of class and obligation.
When we meet Mrs. Travers, she is closed off and adamantly opposed to anyone, especially Disney to take possession of her creation–her family in so many fundamental ways. She wants total control, and that includes absolutely no animation! No singing, and certainly no dancing! Full stop.
The story navigates effortlessly along two timelines: one telling the 1964 story of the movie, and the other taking us back to Mrs. Travers’ childhood in Australia, her love of her troubled father Travers Goff (wonderfully imagined by Colin Farrell) and her sometimes contentious relationship with her mother. When the two narratives meet towards the end of the movie, it is hard to tell which of the narratives packs a bigger emotional punch–both are powerful and had me reaching for the tissues.
Saving Mr. Banks is a resonant movie, especially, perhaps, for those of us who write, living in our imaginations and sometimes through our characters. What fuels the darkness and the light? The dreamscapes and the nightmares that we conjure onto paper (or pixel)? And that is, for me, the beauty of this movie, what made me weep at the most cathartic moments for Mrs. Travers (and perhaps for Mr. Disney as well).
The performances are beautifully drawn, with Emma Thompson “practically perfect” (no, strike that–“perfectly perfect”) and Tom Hanks always finding the humanity in the characters he plays. Thompson lets us see the emotional wounds beneath the fortress walls–the lonely, abandoned child that yet exists within the middle aged author. Hanks finds the whimsey in Disney, but also the pathos and his frustration with the often obstinate Mrs. Travers. Paul turns in a lovely, understated supporting performance as P.L. Travers’ Los Angeles chauffeur.
If you missed Saving Mr. Banks in its big-screen run, see it now. It’s newly available on DVD and Blu-ray, streaming, and OnDemand.[amazon template=iframe image&chan=default&asin=B00GPWEPZ8][amazon template=iframe image&chan=default&asin=B00HT944D4] [amazon template=iframe image&chan=default&asin=B004LLDN3A,B00GR9TZG8]