Saving Mr. Banks is rich in period detail

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Starring Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson. Rated G.

In Hollywood, it is unusual for the writer of a novel upon which a movie is based to be granted access to the set, let alone creative control in preproduction. So unusual, indeed, that Walt Disney Studios made Saving Mr. Banks, a docudrama based on the apparently tortuous rights-obtaining process involving Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers.

The setting is 1961. The film version of Mary Poppins was well under way. The snag was that Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), despite having commissioned a storyboard and songs by the great Sherman brothers, still had not obtained the rights to the book that he had been pursuing since 1938. Consequently, Travers (Emma Thompson) was sent from stuffy England to vibrant Hollywood to have her prejudices challenged, and heart melted.

The portrayal of Travers as an almost uniformly shrill, malign, and ridiculous human being may constitute a satisfying act of revenge for the studio that was, by this account, left feeling upset and hectored by her curious demands for respect. Walt Disney, we are shown, was not just a massively successful entrepreneur filmmaker, but a twinkling beguiler and, beneath it all, a masterful analyst of the soul who only wished to liberate people from their depressive narratives of loss and guilt.

Giving contrast to these scenes of relentless beatdown-by-charm is a parallel narrative set in Australia, 1906. In horror-flashback style, we see Travers as a wee ringletted moppet, being coddled and bewitched by her deeply damaged yet impishly fetching father (Colin Farrell, bearing no resemblance to the insipid martinet Banks of the movie). No wonder she couldn’t let go of him, and ewww.

Director John Lee Hancock, known for his moving, somewhat safe sports dramas, has assembled an amazing cast (including Paul Giamatti, Ruth Wilson, Kathy Baker, and Rachel Griffiths) and has shot the film with wonderful period detail. While not conventionally entertaining (Travers is so vicious and miserable that during an airline sequence, you want her to be sucked out a window à la Gert Fröbe in Goldfinger), it is a handsome film with haunting music, that has the virtue of feeling shockingly mean.

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