(An edited version of this was first published in The New Indian Express)
P.L Travers(Emma Thompson), the creator of Mary Poppins, spends much of her first encounters in the film with repetition of one single phrase – “I am perfectly capable.” It may or may not be followed by a Thank You. This may or may not be a subtle reference to the major conflict within the film – between Walt Disney(Tom Hanks), trying to bring Mary Poppins to life on screen and Travers’ dour determination to not let that happen for about twenty years.
It’s a fact that Disney was a gender bigot in terms of the company’s policies as noted by Meryl Streep in a recent awards ceremony. She read out from a letter written by Walt Disney to an aspiring female cartoonist about how women do not perform any creative work at Disney and that it is performed by young men. In that kind of an atmosphere, Travers’ ad nauseam “I am perfectly capable” has a special weight and resonates even more. The accuracy of the events and the characteristics of the protagonists portrayed in Saving Mr. Banks maybe questionable. The film is from the Disney stable and there is an obvious attempt to sanitize the whole standoff between Travers and Walt Disney. But there is no question that as a film, it is charmingly made and deeply affecting.
Much of Mary Poppins origin, nature and the character of the adult P.L Travers is juxtaposed with Travers’ difficult childhood. Travers’ forthrightness is informed by the maturity and precociousness of the child born Helen Goff aka Ginty. The answers to a lot of conceits in the world of Mary Poppins (and P.L Travers) is shown as lying in the growing up years of Ginty. She insists on tea even at a bar but that’s not because she’s English (Australian later settled in England) but because of her doting father’s drinking problem. There is a reason Mr. Banks shouldn’t have a moustache. There is also a reason for Travers’ bewildered observation of Los Angeles – “Nobody walks“.
These are the film’s best parts punctuated by Emma Thompson’s splendid performance. She’s a private person, almost a loner and therefore these moments just before the flashbacks are wordless marvels from Thompson. Her mannerisms and movements are things to note. At the end of the film, just before entering the film’s premiere, Travers is slightly nervous and overwhelmed and she half turns and takes the reassuring hand of her chauffeur Ralph (Paul Giamatti) for a split second. An offhand beauty. It’s a performance that could have been overdone, hammed on but as an agitated P.L Travers says to the Mickey Mouse, “You can stay over there until you learn the art of subtlety.”
The film falters when Walt Disney visits Travers and easily convinces her to sign on the dotted line. He’s as mendacious as she’s relentless and touches that raw nerve in P.L Travers to change her mind. Here lies that attempt to sanitize the story and the nature of Walt Disney. It hints on Travers being the villain and offers a less sympathetic portrait of her. Disney’s refusal to invite her for the film’s premiere says more about their equation than the film lets on.
But the film is an acting powerhouse. Everyone from Thompson to Tom Hanks, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, Paul Giamatti, B.J Novak lives their parts. It is a well written, well enacted story of how Mary Poppins with Julie Andrews et al came together on screen. There maybe only a minor gripe that is succinctly captured by Travers herself in the film, “It is blasphemy to drink tea from a paper cup.”