1961 in London and the agent of P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) has arrived to escort her to the airport. This is because, as the author of the immensely popular Mary Poppins novels, Travers has been courted by the powerful Hollywood moviemaker Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) to adapt the character into one of his films, something Travers has resisted for well-nigh twenty years now. Could it be that her frosty exterior is finally being thawed and she will agree to meet with him, sign away the rights for one project, and be assured of a hit movie in the process? She still needs a lot of coaxing even to get on the plane over to the United States, but the fact remains she is broke...
So Travers had to at least consider her beloved magical nanny character as a way of generating some funds if she wasn't going to write another book, yet she remained adamant that she should have creative control over the production, and there lay the main bone of contention. Kelly Marcel's script for Saving Mr. Banks was written without the permission of the Walt Disney company, a risky proposition when they guarded their image so diligently, but once it had been deemed too good not to be put into play the studio agreed to assist, and it was well seen that they did, offering one of those BBC Films biopics and recreations of history access to the sort of budget which tended to make their others look mundane by comparison.
There was even a chance to film in Australia - one of that nation's writers Sue Smith was drafted in to punch up Marcel's script in respect to the scenes where we watch the young Travers, called Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley) by her father (Colin Farrell), undergo the heartache that in a typically psychological approach to such real life material sought to explain the woman the subject became. This reasoned that behind every sour battleaxe had been a little girl with hopes and dreams who had seen those knocked out of her by the disappointments of life, along with the trauma and bad influences that could accompany them, all the better to assist in understanding the adult who was less than sympathetic to the outside world, a very Disney sentiment.
Fortunately, before this descended into treacle there was Emma Thompson who embodied all those contradictions but never condescended to the actual person she was portraying, skillfully hitting the comedy beats while bringing out the pathos in such an apparently unlikeable personality. Once Travers reaches Los Angeles, from the off she is deeply patronising towards the populace she encounters as if she is above them in class and status, but she has something the Disney people want and that is the rights to Mary Poppins which she is holding onto for dear life. When Disney himself enters the fray, he uses his twinkly charm to try to win her over, but this meeting of the charming yet shrewd businessman and this stormcloud of a woman is not so much the unstoppable force hitting the immovable object as them both bouncing off one another.
Repeatedly, until something has to give, and since we know Mary Poppins was indeed finally made into a classic movie the outcome is not in doubt. What may have been more news was the background to Travers' dilemma in that she had been let down at a very early age and thus was obsessed with holding onto some kind of order which her nanny creation represented; the Australia flashbacks reveal just how far the past goes to live in the present, no matter how much you try to banish or dismiss it. Or it could have been that Travers was simply an insufferable snob who thought the supposed vulgarities of America were not to be trusted, but Saving Mr. Banks preferred to downplay that aspect so that while it was funny to watch the author denigrating all about her, so even as Disney's resident genius songwriters the Sherman Brothers concoct brilliant tune after brilliant tune, and the plans for animating the penguins send Travers into a fit of outrage, we can see this protectiveness runs deeper than simply willful ignorance of the talent she was working with. It's a little long, but well made. Music by Thomas Newman.