I went to see 'Saving Mr. Banks' at the Barbican today and I was emotionally violated by a film that touched every one of my feelings. I enjoyed the sensation at the time, although upon leaving the cinema and discussing a documentary that was on one of the BBC channels last night about P.L. Travers with my Mum (that I missed and will watch later), my view of the film may have slightly changed.
Let's start at the beginning, the film is a fictional account of the relationship between the author of 'Mary Poppins', P.L. Travers and Walt Disney. The relationship was a business based transaction as Walt Disney spent more than twenty years to get P.L. Travers to sell her film rights to the novel of 'Mary Poppins' to him. As a last ditch attempt, he invites her to Los Angeles, where Disney invites Travers to work on the script, design and general feel of the film (in a desperate attempt to get her to sell the rights to him). The film leaps between P.L. Travers' past as a girl and her present situation as an adult seemingly affected by many unresolved issues from her past. Emma Thompson plays the role of P.L. Travers with a subtlety and humanity that may or may not be a fair reflection of the actual author. Tom Hanks plays the role of Walt Disney and the same statement equally applies to him.
I need to express at this point that I enjoyed this film as a fictional work. In fact, it resonates as one of the finest films I have seen this year. It is framed as a narrative incorporating elements from 'Mary Poppins', the image of the wind dial and the alteration of wind direction implying change yet also suggesting that this has all happened before and will continue to happen. The film of 'Mary Poppins' uses the wind dial in the same way. Now where this film goes into another more vital and vibrant symbolic plane is through its usage of everyday objects and colours that help to link Travers' reality as a child with her life as an adult. For example, pears are a particularly important symbol in the film serving as a symbol of both satisfaction and failure. Her father gives a pear to P.L. Travers' mother as a child as a token of love then later in childhood, P.L. Travers is asked by her dying father to get him pears and proceeds to drop them. He is dead by the time she finally gets back from her pear hunting trip. Now true or not, apparently P.L. Travers asked the film makers not to use the colour red in 'Mary Poppins'. This ties in to the fact that P.L. Travers' father was an alcoholic who apparently died of some alcohol related disease (he is coughing up blood). Hence, her aversion to the colour red.
In terms of the characters, one quickly understands why P.L. Travers has issues with anyone tampering with her intellectual property as 'Mary Poppins' is effectively a pure example of catharsis. She used the novel and characters to effectively try to rewrite her past. Mr. Banks is effectively a symbolic representation of her father who she couldn't save. Mrs. Banks stands in for her mother, who ultimately seems to be long suffering (in reality, P.L. Travers' mother committed suicide after the death of her husband) but hard working. Mary Poppins is the positive force for change, the film implies that the figure may have existed in P.L. Travers' life in some form or other (an Aunt?).
Now, allowing for the positives, what happens to the film when you gradually learn that events that are being presented as factual are gradually revealed through other sources to be fictional? There's a great scene where P.L. Travers' mother asks her to look after her sisters and then wanders off to a lake to attempt suicide. She is saved by P.L. Travers who goes into the water after her. Also P.L. Travers as an adult remains a total enigma in many respects. Her character as suggested by this film is entirely informed by her childhood. Her love life is overlooked. Essentially, she is a little girl. Now Walt Disney also remains merely a two dimensional character. The fact that the Disney company were involved in this film may have slightly skewered the focus of this work. He comes across as being a genuinely nice guy, driven, slightly egotistical (he has pre-signed autographs in a cigarette case that he gives to people who ask for his autograph) but somehow, the photos at the end of the film reveal more about Disney than this film can. He deserves a more objective film, which will not be produced by Disney. I like this film up until the point that you step back and ask the question, how much of this is real? In many respects, I throw the same statement at 'Philomena' too. The ultimate divergence from reality apparently occurs at the end of the film when P.L. Travers attends the film premiere in Los Angeles of 'Mary Poppins'. She is shown to be deeply moved by the film in places, on account of its parallels with her own life but in reality, apparently she was crying owing to her belief that Disney had 'produced a film that was all fantasy and no magic'. (Please see my link to the article on 'Mary Poppins' that appeared in 'The Sunday Times' on 27th October 2013 in the Afterword to this blog entry).
My final thought, should you discard the truth and embrace a very entertaining Disney film or feel slightly sordid having seen a confectionery created with the express intention of deceiving to the same extent that it illuminates? The decision is yours... It's not pretending to be a documentary but real people are being distorted. It's a good film and that may be the only truth that matters. Perhaps?
Barry Watt - 1st December 2013.
'Saving Mr. Banks' is out in all good U.K. cinemas at the moment. It's a co-production between Walt Disney Pictures, Essential Films and BBC Films.
'Mary Poppins' was written by P.L. Travers and was the first of six books featuring the character. Her adventures can be found in various editions including those produced by Harper Collins.
'Mary Poppins' - The film was released in 1964 and stars Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. A Walt Disney production. Well worth seeing.
The 'Sunday Times' article is reproduced on the following website. It is copyright to the 'Sunday Times' where it first appeared on 27th October 2013.
Valerie Lawson's Dancelines is copyright to Valerie Lawson (She owns the website reproducing this article).