Curt. Haughty. Dyspeptic. Snooty. Churlish.
Also articulate. I jotted down lots of one-word descriptions of Emma Thompson's character, author P.L. Travers, as I watched “Saving Mr. Banks.”
This is not a character who's easy to love. But it is a performance, and a movie, to savor. Think of salty Maggie Smith in “Downton Abbey.”
Travers, author of “Mary Poppins,” spends the entire movie resisting Walt Disney's (Tom Hanks) attempts to get her to sign over rights to her book so he can make the movie version. The eventual 1964 best-picture Oscar nominee won five awards, including for best actress Julie Andrews in the title role.
Lured under duress to sunny Southern California — “It smells like chlorine and sweat,” she sniffs — Travers seems to have a permanently knitted brow as the movie's creators pitch music, costumes, casting, script and storyline. Nothing meets with her approval.
But she's broke, and not turning out any new books, giving Uncle Walt leverage for a story conference on his home turf.
“What horrors have you in store for my beautiful characters today?” she says to begin one such meeting. That causes the faces and shoulders of screenwriter Don DiGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman) to droop yet again.
Travers, whose stiff English back is up from the movie's opening moment, is the kind of woman who insists on being called Mrs. Travers. Disney prefers family informality, calling her Pam. Her sunny and patient chauffeur (Paul Giamatti), who tries hard to please (“No prob-lame-o!”), settles simply on Missus.
Like any movie based on a true story, “Saving Mr. Banks” works better if you view it as a Hollywood treatment, rather than a factual treatise.
Director John Lee Hancock (“The Rookie,” “The Blind Side”) knows his way around essentially sentimental material that must never cross the line into mawkish. This movie doesn't. In fact, it's surprisingly affecting at several moments, including the segment in which Travers attends the Hollywood premiere — despite the lack of an invitation from Disney.
But the movie's central premise — that Travers' famous characters and story, plus her prickly personality, are rooted in her unhappy childhood — is more circumstantial evidence and invention than established fact.
The movie is framed by flashbacks to Australia, where Travers grew up as Helen Goff, daughter of an unsuccessful banker she apparently adored. He died of influenza at age 43. In the movie, his ailment is suggested to be a combination of alcoholism and tuberculosis, which explains why Travers bans the color red from the movie. It reminds her of the blood her mercurial father (Colin Firth) coughs up on his handkerchief. Daddy, the movie posits, was a dreamer, not completely unlike Disney. That's causing Travers to wrestle with her past.
Disney, patient and forbearing during the difficult weeks of story conferences, eventually draws a parallel between Travers' background and his own tough moments growing up in Kansas City, delivering newspapers through snowdrifts (“Higher than my head,” he exaggerates) for his taskmaster father. His Midwestern just-folks likability mirrors' Hanks' public persona, while also contrasting with Travers' starchy formality.
The fun of “Saving Mr. Banks” is primarily watching Thompson deliver withering dialogue with the piercing pain of a rapier, as Travers edges toward a slow, partial thaw.
That, and the idea that we are behind the scenes during the creation of an iconic movie, eavesdropping on its creators. Look for Hanks and Thompson to score Academy Award nominations (they're Golden Globe nominees already). This looks like a best-pic contender and a holiday box office hit.
* * * * *
SAVING MR. BANKS
Quality: 3.5 stars (out of four)
Director: John Lee Hancock
Stars: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Bradley Whitford, B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman, Paul Giamatti, Colin Farrell, Ruth Wilson
Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, unsettling images
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes
Theaters: Aksarben, Bluffs 17, Majestic, Midtown, Oakview, Twin Creek, Village Pointe, Westroads