Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Who are you, now?: on Saving Mr Banks

its protagonist issue, its genre hopping and its experiments with perception. Alternate title: Image is everything

directed by John Lee Hancock; written by Kelly Marcel, Sue Smith

On the surface Saving Mr Banks seems to be at war with itself. What do you want to be seems a fair question to ask it it. Better yet, what do you want us to feel? And for whom? Its ostensible appearance as a standard biopic of a pivotal moment in a creator’s life (this time Mary Poppins creator P. L. Travers) seems initially endorsed by the actions of the film, up to a point. Then, the focus on young Helen Goff (Mrs. Travers as a child before she became P. L.) seems to indicate that the standard biopic is really a character study of the way artists develop their craft. Except, Saving Mr Banks is curiously, and significantly unlike any true character study I can immediately recall. Study suggests penetration, and this movie seems to be more character observance than penetration. And for much of the film’s first third I kept pondering on that. Why is it, with the unequivocal role as film’s protagonist, was P. L. Travers – specifically grown up P.L. Travers as opposed to child Helen – a character we often saw but rarely pierced through? We spend all this time with her and we might, fleetingly, come to understand but not to know her. And, then, it occurred to me that maybe Saving Mr Banks wasn’t about any of the things it seemed to be about initially and was about something completely different. The futility in ever being able to know anyone.

Let me try to make good on that claim.

First impressions are everything, they say. So, let’s consider some firsts in Saving Mr Banks. We first meet adult Mrs Travers pensively waiting in her London home, unwilling to make the trip out to California to meet Walt Disney to have him turn her book into a novel. She is stern, she is cold. She seems unrelenting. Consider this against our first image of Mr. Disney. His arms are open in an embrace as he stands in front of a case of golden awards, his megawatt smile brighter than all the gold. Next, our first meeting with Travers Goff, Helen’s father. He’s playing a game with his daughter. He seems indomitably gregarious, even as his words “I’ll never leave you” seem as sure a sign of tragedy as anything in the film’s first half hour. Then, there is Mrs. Goff – the slightest of the four roles, but not unessential. We first meet her as her family moves to a new home. She’s slightly ticked that there’s no carriage waiting for them even as her husband insists, “A leisurely stroll is a gift!” Her awkward walk following the rest of her family through the neighbourhood they’re leaving seems hardly leisurely and just full of embarrassment and the slightest trait of annoyance. Such a gloomy woman next to the joyous Travers. So, those are our first impressions. But how effective are they in the long run? And how accurate?

It’s impossible to ignore the story behind Saving Mr Banks, and all the baggage which comes with it against the film itself. The film, a production from the Walt Disney studios, purporting to recreate the making of Mary Poppins, a historically bad experience for P.L. Travers and one she regretted until her death seems un-ideal. Of course, it’s an untrustworthy exercise seeing as it is being made by the people who might better represent the villain in Mrs Travers life. But, why instead, not a film about Walt Disney’s life with a glimpse of P.L. Travers represented as the implacable woman she might appear to be? I kept wondering for so much of the film. Which film, as focused on the sincere, has represented its lead character with so little focus on her inner thoughts, at least specifically. We’re given constant representation of Mrs Travers as young Helen, but startlingly little insight into what Emma Thompson as Mrs Travers. Or so it seems. The performance is beautifully rendered, but relentlessly inscrutable. And, yet, I find myself digging for exculpatory evidence. It’s somewhere about that time in the film when Mrs Travers storms into Mr Disney’s office interrupting him in a smoke that one most throwaway of lines ends up having the oddest effect on me.

I never like anyone to see me smoking, I hate to encourage bad habits.

As I said, it’s an incidental statement and still it struck me. The important part there is in the first half. He does not say he does not like to smoke, just that he prefers not to let anyone see him. Image is everything. So much of Saving Mr Banks seems to me about the folly of appearance. Hark back to an early scene when Disney foolishly – in Travers estimation – presumes the Nanny has arrived to save the children. It’s a classic moment where Pamela with her stiff upper-lip thinks those around her have missed the point. And, in the same way that Travers Goff turns out to be alcoholic and unworthy of his job, maybe even unworthy of his daughter’s incessant adoration, maybe the inscrutability of Mrs Travers outward appearance is just the point. Director John Lee Hancock and writers Kelly Marcel and sue Smith are admittedly caught in an uncomfortable position of presenting a film with so much unwieldy baggage behind it. I’ve observe a number of responses to the film which contend that it plays fast and loose with facts in an effort to misrepresent Travers as a termagant and Disney as the gregarious saviour, but I feel immediately doubtful of such a supposition which seems to miss the principal idea behind the film’s relationship with appearances. The liveliest elements of Saving Mr Banks are the moments in the first half where Colin Farrell Travers Goff apes around in what seems to be the ideal representation of a caring father. Later in the film his beleaguered wife (Ruth Wilson putting her all into a sliver of a role) tells her daughter almost pleadingly, “I know you love your father more, but one day you will understand.” If anything, the film’s ultimate message seems to be that men and women are social actors, oftentimes to the detriment of those around them. It might explain the reasons the film decides to tell its tale in that way with the past and the present developing parallel to each other. In the past gregarious Travers Goff develops as the status quo, until we realise that he is not what he seems. In the present, stern P. L. Travers develops until we realise she too is not what she seems.
The film doesn’t answer the why of Travers alcoholism, it does not lose sympathy with him either. And, as much as it is deliberately formed in some areas it does not quite indicate how adult Travers feels about the experience. Still, it seems fair to infer that that her father’s winsomeness belying darker things contributes to adult P. L. Travers emphatic sternness. Consider that against Disney’s almost effortful charm which seems tp emerge in direct rebellion to his father’s own sternness which he speaks of. As if to say, children are damned by the dispositions of their parents. Or, better yet, disposition is all about outward appearance and active choices and not necessarily always sincere, and true. As the movie develops Travers own curtness reveals itself, even if mutedly, as such a projection of her emphatic need for control that I’m nonplussed by the accusations of the film representing her poorly. I was particularly hesitant about the film’s observations on the issue knowing how it was not as positive as the film which emerged from it suggests. Still on the other hand I feel doubtful about coming to the cinema, even in a biopic, for some indication of history. It possibly indicates a larger debates on film ethics and morals but I’m wary of demanding cinematic rendition of historical acts necessarily adhere to the historical facts. Especially in a case like this where P. L. Travers own inclinations may have been forever inscrutable. But, in my estimation of the film's fondness for playing with appearance consider how Giammatti's driver is boorishly represented through the lens P. .L. gives us until we realise that he has depth. And, in turn, in realising is sincerity she changes her disposition around him appearing warmer, and kinder. And, Emma delivers. In her interactions where she seems aggressively curt, Emma’s eyes reveal someone studiously remove any trace of emotions from their semblance. It suggests a coldness on the surface, but perspective later in the film suggests that a cool calm is better than a volatile fire for her. A misrepresentation of the true P. L. Travers? Who knows, but to what end would it matter?

The film, admirable in its attempts to build depth, suffers from the problem of not always knowing when to focus on what and how. Farrell is excellent as Travers Goff, but to an extent his flashback scenes are slightly repetitive in their sameness although the film benefits from using them well. In a linear format, its issues may be exacerbated. In its present they endorse P. L. Travers' own issues in an excellent way, so that the build-up to that one true scene of joyousness “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” is worth it for everything. Emma is forced to react to the flashbacks as if they are corporeal and it is a curious case of wordless acting enhancing those memories even when they threaten to take focus from the present. But, as much time as is devoted to the past it is the conflict between Travers and Disney which becomes paramount. Hanks is charming and effective, but it is notable that the character Disney never becomes the main arc of Saving Mr Banks. But, like with P. L. the sense that his external disposition hiding a knottier inside only emphasises the way appearances are so uncertain in the movie. And it is one of Disney's key moments which give the film its ultimate sadness, and depth, within that.

When Disney confides in a colleague that he, too, had been approached to give up his baby – the Mickey Mouse logo – but refused because Mickey was family for him, he couldn’t give it up. It’s a curious inclusion in a film being accused of glossing over historical harshness because its inclusion before Mrs. Travers ultimately relinquishes the rights to Disney only make the film’s end that much more melancholy and even pendent in a way. Why include the moment at all, I wonder. This is no happy resolution because watching something of your own, borne out of such personal places, will never be able to be the right representation of it. Maybe P. L. Travers looks at her Mary, now Disney's Mary and wonders Who are you now? Not a true tragedy but probably a painful thing for a creator. The film gives no closing title cards to say P. L. Travers never allowed any further use of her character from Disney. Such a title card would, indeed, wreck the perception of hope the film is being accused of leaving us with. Except Saving Mr Banks, arguably hopeful ending aside is not completely bathed in happiness. As P. L. Travers watches Mary Poppins final scene she recalls her father's words - “I’ll never leave you”. It might seem to be an immediate indication of Mary Poppins succeeding in making her remember the book's reason for existence. But, in an odd way, it makes me think even more of Travers dissatisfaction with the finished film. She has relinquished her rights to Disney, but in her way Mary Poppins will never leave her. It is not a sentimentally hopeful declaration because like her father who says the line Mary Poppins has already left her in a way. But, that unreadable smile which we leave her with is not borne out of the Mary Poppins on screen but her own memory of what it means to her. Disney incarnation be damned. And, maybe, I do read too much positivity into something which does emerge from the Disney studio so its intent may be suspect. But, I am much too wary to attach qualifiers to maker's intent beyond reason. So much of Saving Mr Banks ends up revealing how the way things are initially represented are not quite accurate, with some consideration I think the same can be said for the film. The film dulls the focus of most biopic in that it never completely makes us root for Travers against Disney, but it does not make Disney's outwardly charm a decisive superior trait to her taciturn. Instead, it leaves us unsure who to feel most for - the father trying to create something for his daughters, or the woman unwilling to let go of her creation because of her father. Maybe a reason it moves is because both sides seem worthy of consideration. It still does not quite answer its own question of whether it is a person specific biopic (it doesn't seem as consumed with the emotions of its protagonist for that), a workplace comedy (too much focus on the past for that), a tale of a woman being seduced by a smooth operator (too sincere and warm for that). But, it does not have to justify its form. Uneven in its execution, it certainly is, but it is also terribly effective when it succeeds. And when it succeeds, I was moved.



Nick Prigge said...

Great analysis, man, and I love your reading of those final moments. I was seeing more or less the same thing. Not so much the topping to the sugary dessert it seems like so many are claiming, but Travers' internal, still ongoing resistance to the finished product.

Your idea, though, of it wondering if we have the ability to truly know anyone.....that's interesting, and one that had not really occurred to me. But I can see it, and I agree with it.

Andrew K. said...

nick i feel as if so many readings of the film and its intent have been so ungenerous. which is a shame because it's really not as standard a film as a superficial reading might suggest.