Starring: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Ruth Wilson and Jason Swartzman.
Running Time: 125 mins.
Seen At: Didsbury.
On: Saturday, 7th December, 2013.
In 1964, an incredible fifty years ago, Julie Andrews became an overnight sensation, winning an Oscar for her portrayal of the flying, singing, magical nanny Mary Poppins – who was of course: ‘Practically perfect in every way’.
But, not a lot is known about the lady who created her – P.L. Travers, and her twenty-year-long persuasion to agree to hand over the rights to Mr. Walt Disney himself, to turn her literary invention into that timeless Technicolor classic. Family crowd-pleasers such as Poppins belong to that most particular ilk in cinema history. Along with: Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, The Sound Of Music, Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang, Snow White and Bedknobs and Broomsticks – they only grow richer on repeated viewings, and are a customary fixture inside the pages of Christmas TV-listings magazines year after year.
This film, is both a fantastically entertaining and fascinating behind-the-scenes account of a long-standing battle-of-wits, between an initially austere, solitary and deeply fractured author, and the incomparable king of family movies who built the ultimate place where dreams came true – and was not accustomed to hearing the word no.
Mrs. Travers has obtained offers from Mr. Disney about his wishes to turn her creation into his next feature – and she has repeatedly turned him down – before finally giving in reluctantly, owing to a lack of money. She’s not impressed with the bustling, sun-drenched, palm-tree-strewn streets of Los Angeles upon arrival, and is even less impressed when she sees Mr. Disney’s elaborately joyful plans for her beloved Mary, ‘Poppins – never ever just Mary’ – she insists, to the eager studio-executives.
Emma Thompson gives an absolutely exceptional, pitch-perfect performance here. She’s fully deserving of all the awards attention, having been nominated for both a Golden-Globe, and a BAFTA. She is, like her character’s invention, perfect - as the brittle, edgy, acid-tongued Travers. Her timing at delivering sarcastic barbs is unparalleled. When noticing that one of the Sherman brothers (the duo behind those unmistakable tunes) has a limp and learns that he was shot, she simply retorts: ‘Hardly surprising’. She states her reasons for reluctance to hand over Mary: ‘I know what he’s going to do to her – she’ll be cavorting – and twinkly’. She’s set against making everything rose-tinted and lovely: ‘What is all this Jollification?’ When she’s first shown into her hotel suite, greeted by an assortment of Mickey-Mouse shaped balloons and Winnie The Pooh cuddly toys, she mutters: ‘Poor A. A. Milne’ and gets rid of all of them. She’s also suddenly horrified at seeing pears in the fruit bowl, and throws them out of the window into the swimming pool, because they are connected to a tragic memory from her childhood…
Some of the best scenes in the film take place in the rehearsal room, where ideas are being discussed. With the Sherman brother’s halfway through writing Chim-Chim-Cheree, Travers suddenly stops proceedings: ‘No no, ‘responstable’ is not a word!’ ‘We made it up’ they reply. ‘Well…unmake it up’. The copy of the score for a certain song entitled: ‘Supercalifragalisticexpialidocious’ is quickly covered up! When considering possible choices for who to cast to play Bert in Mary Poppins, the brothers agree that Dick Van Dyke is one of the greats. ‘Dick Van Dyke?’ she asks incredulously. ‘Olivier is one of the greats’. The dialogue, by first time screenwriter Kelly Marcel, is full of these comic gems.
Score, is also an absolutely outstanding element of this film. The great composer Thomas Newman (American Beauty, The Iron Lady, Skyfall, Revolutionary Road, Finding Nemo) knows that as an audience, we’ll be expecting to hear an homage to Mary Poppins’s classic score. His brilliant method, is to seamlessly intertwine subtle reference to them immediately and throughout, whilst also creating his own trademark simple, melodic, uplifting score on top. The film opens with floating clouds, and those unmistakably magical first piano bars of ‘Chim-Chim-Cheree’ , with Colin Farrell narrating its lyrics: ‘Winds in the East, Mists Coming In, Like Something Is Brewing, About To Begin. Can’t Put My Finger, On What Lies In Store, But I Feel What’s To Happen, All Happened…Before…’.
From here, structurally, the film cross-cuts between the 1960’s present, and Travers’s childhood. We learn that her family were forced to travel a lot. Her mother, played by Ruth Wilson, was rather pre-occupied with the running of the household. She was incredibly close to her father, Travers Goff, a banker, who loved his daughter enormously, and was the one who encouraged her creativity and more fantastical flights of imagination. Tragically though, he was also an alcoholic, but wanted desperately to be there for his family. In one heartbreaking scene, he gives a speech, drunk on a podium, and collapses…
Colin Farrell’s a brilliant actor, and gives a wonderful performance here, making him an utterly sympathetic character. I think it’s one of his very best performances. We all empathize with his desperation for redemption – and now understand why P.L. Travers is the way she is.
Also on top form is Tom Hanks. He injects Walt Disney with just the correct mixture of ‘loveable grandfather of genius invention’, but also the fact that Disney was a lucrative business conglomerate. Walt Disney Pictures the studio, is accurately portrayed very much as his own personal dream factory. When Disney took on Mary Poppins, he assured Travers that her two stipulations: there was to be no singing, and absolutely no cartoons. Of course, both of those elements were integral to the finished film – which shows just how determined Disney was. She’s most annoyed – especially with the dancing penguins! But he also shows extremely well, the depth of what this project meant to him: ‘I won’t disappoint you. I swear every time somebody walks out of a movie-house – they will rejoice’. He learns as much as Travers does, why she is so protective of her property. ‘So, it’s not the children she comes to save. It’s their father. It’s your father. Don’t you want to finish the story…?’.
Artistically, this film looks absolutely beautiful – there’s a glowing warmth, a rich glossiness to its cinematography – which only makes it all the more magical. I have huge fondness, admiration and excitement for films whose subject matter is about the making of films. In 2004, Quantum Of Solace director Marc Forster lifted up the gossamer veneer of fantasy filmmaking on Neverland, to similar wide-eyed wonder and glowing sense of sentiment in the J.M. Barrie/Peter Pan family drama: Finding Neverland. Earlier this year, Anthony Hopkins donned the latex to show, together with Helen Mirren, how the seminal shocker Psycho made it to the big screen, in Hitchcock. All of these films and many more share the same ‘Hollywood back-lot behind the scenes’ quality I’ve always found fascinating.
This never feels on the wrong side of being too overly sentimentalized. Travers struggles at learning to let go of something so dear to her and her father’s heart, is one of the most moving pieces of acting I’ve ever seen. As with another magical nanny of hers, Nanny McPhee, she manages to construct mainstream, very funny, deeply emotional family crowd-pleasers incredibly well. Make sure you stay for the credits for extra insight.
This is certainly in my Top 5 films of the year. As funny and magical as it is moving, with perfectly judged performances, a fascinating look at the story of two unique figures, and the even more unique characters that inspired them – and all without too many spoonfuls of sugar.