Pamela Lyndon Travers (1899-1996), below, was an Australian-born, British-based actress, journalist and novelist - she created the beloved "Mary Poppins" - and a handful. Her famous book was something of a fabulist's autobiography in which Travers traced over memories of her sad childhood to create something more magical and, for her, more tolerable.
She was so driven by her affection for her beloved father, Travers Goff - and so willful in her need to overlook his flaws - that she changed her name in his memory, Born Helen Lyndon Goff, she redefined herself as P. L. Travers and, in that incarnation, she continually challenged her loyalty to her father. Her greatest test came when, plagued by financial troubles (her books had stopped selling), she entertained the suggestion by Walt Disney to turn her most precious possession - her book (and, by extension, her father) - into a big, slick, family-friendly Hollywood film. She went into this kicking and screaming.
In bringing the story of "the making of 'Mary Poppins" to life on screen, the director John Lee Hancock filmed two separate movies, alternating between 1901 Australia and the story of the fierce devotion shared by little Helen (the preternatually gifted Annie Rose Buckley) and her father (an excellent Colin Farrell, below with Buckley), and 1961 Hollywood, where Travers (a towering Emma Thompson) would knock heads with Disney (good, gray Tom Hanks) and his creative "Poppins" team.
Travers' incorrigible, obstructionist behavior had everything to do with daddy issues and, in Disney, she grudgingly found a willing father figure.
Each movie here has its own ambiance, thanks to the distinctive looks and sounds contributed by cinematographer John Schwartzman and composer Thomas Newman, respectively, and it's fascinating to observe how little, throwaway details in the "Poppins" film both complemented and contrasted with Travers real-life, death-tinged story. Travers' father was a failed banker but she blamed his failure on the assorted banks that employed him and she went further, demonizing the idea of money. And for her, Disney represented money. Not a good thing. Guilt by association.
And the father in "Poppins" could not be a negative one. "Why must he be cruel?," Travers asks of Mr. Banks. "Why?"
One of the more witty touches in the film is whether or not David Tomlinson, who played Mr. Banks, Travers Hoff's alter ego, in "Poppins," should be clean-shaven like Travers' father or have a mustache which Walt preferred - you know, sort of like his own. One can only guess about the veracity of "Saving Mr. Banks" - Travers is pretty much vilified, while Disney is spared any criticism - but on its own terms, it works.
With Thompson's scrappy, starchy yet quite vulnerable Travers in command, "Saving Mr. Banks" emerges as an unexpectedly powerful film biography, one old-fashioned, menalcholic in design and yet artfully, fastidiously done. I'm confident that P.L. Travers would approve.
It's a surprising discovery.
Note in Passing: The film's terrific ensemble includes the fetching Ruth Wilson as P.L./Helen's mother in the alternate movie and Rachel Griffiths as a take-charge aunt who was probably the inspiration for Mary Poppins; Bradley Whitford as "Poppins" scenarist Don DaGradi; Jason Schwartzman (half-brother of the aforementioned John) and B.J. Novak as the song-writing Sherman Brothers; Paul Giamatti as P.L.'s chauffeur in Hollywood, and Kathy Baker & Melanie Paxson as two Disney secretaries.