Thompson and Hanks shine in awards-baiting Disney biopic

Cert PG | By Simon Thomson
Four Stars

SAVING Mr Banks is the true story of how, over two weeks in Los Angeles, Walt Disney persuaded P.L. Travers to turn her children’s book series, Mary Poppins, into a film. Starring double-Oscar winners Emma Thompson as Travers and Tom Hanks as Disney, it is the characterisation that brings a real vibrancy to the film. Hanks is magnificent as a warm and caring (historically whitewashed?) Disney, who wants to make the film to fulfill a 20-year-old promise to his daughter.

Thompson is even better, portraying Travers as a sad, prickly, isolated woman, and – with withering comic effect – the personification of Britain’s mid-century cultural superiority and anti-Americanism. She is disdainful of Disney’s commercialism, viewing money itself as distasteful, and seems utterly trapped in her own distancing ideas of propriety.

Thompson’s great accomplishment is making someone so alienating seem so sympathetic. There are heart-rending scenes where Travers watches strangers socialising and it is clear that she wants to join the fun, but cannot allow herself to do so. These are only worsened when she eventually gathers the courage to join in, but she simply doesn’t know how.

The film and its lead performances are crying out for awards, and yet both are overshadowed by a small and understated performance by Paul Giamatti as Ralph, Travers’ driver, and – by golly – the nicest man in the world. (Are we intended to read anything into the fact that the only American Travers likes is the film’s only prominent fictional character?). There is also good work from Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak as the songwriting Sherman brothers and from Bradley Whitford (The West Wing) as Mary Poppins’ screenwriter Don DaGradi.

As a scenario, the acquisition of film rights hardly screams dramatic potential and we already know that Disney succeeded. So Saving Mr Banks makes this conceit the MacGuffin in an unconventionally framed biopic where, through his attempts to acquire the rights to Mary Poppins, Disney comes to understand Travers (and she exorcises some personal demons).

Most of the action takes place in a beautifully realised Los Angeles in 1961, with location filming at Disneyland and the former Grauman’s Chinese Theater (where the premiere of Mary Poppins was held). The film makes the most of its access to the whole cornucopia of Disney Corporation intellectual property, from the period-appropriate production logo at the beginning, to the jazz arrangement of Snow White’s Heigh-Ho that plays in the background as Travers is driven through the studios. But the most satisfying moment is an early indication of Travers’ fears for her creation, as she picks up a soft toy based on the Disney version of Winnie the Pooh, and says, “Poor A.A. Milne.”

Threaded throughout the film are a series of flashbacks to Travers’ childhood in rural Australia. Colin Farrell is surprisingly good as the charming, quixotic and unreliable father that would have such a profound impact on Travers’ life. But the title, Saving Mr Banks, draws attention to the importance of the patriarch in the Mary Poppins stories and, in so doing, performs a profound disservice to the narrative by disclosing at the outset Travers’ key concern in her negotiations with Disney, strongly hinting at the childhood problems that make Mr Banks so close to her heart.

The plot is a little too neat and the decision to make the film an “emotional journey” feels like it exploits the audience. But, despite all the showboating, this is a great movie and the Disney legacy is alive and well.

Cert 15 | By Steve Dinneen
Three Stars

It’s impossible to judge Kimberly Peirce’s take on Carrie on its own merits; every similarity to and deviation from Brian De Palma’s iconic 1976 version becomes a point of contention.

And while this is a decidedly 21st century take on the material – Carrie White’s locker-room humiliation is captured on a smartphone and broadcast on YouTube – it rarely deviates from the structure of its forebear.

Chloe Grace Moretz, one of Hollywood’s most promising young stars, plays the eponymous bullied high school student who begins to develop telekinetic abilities, raising one of the most fundamental questions about the adaptation: isn’t she far too pretty? De Palma’s Carrie, the excellent Sissy Spacek, was a gawky, peculiar-looking creature who moved with the gait of a newborn foal: you can imagine her having a hard time in the cut-throat environment of an American high school. Moretz, though, even made-down with black bags under her eyes and tangled, voluminous hair, exudes a classic beauty. The implication is her issues are internal, that her abuse at the hands of her domineering, mentally ill mother has eroded her sense of self worth. But when her entire school, teachers included, expresses collective shock when she attracts a prom date, it’s a little difficult to swallow.

Moretz initially overcompensates, hunching her shoulders and contorting her face into an expression somewhere between nausea and surprise. But as Carrie’s transformation – explicitly into a telekinetic powerhouse, implicitly into a woman – takes hold, Moretz finds surer footing. The tentative trust Carrie places in those around her is genuinely touching, especially in light of the inevitable, impending tragedy. She’s such a damaged, timid soul that you’d have to be a monster not to root for her as she takes to the stage in her prom dress.

Carrie’s realisation of her telekinetic powers, though, veers a little too close to Marvel superhero territory. Surely part of the point is that her powers are instinctual and invasive – a reflection on burgeoning sexuality – rather than a tool to be used at will?

Julianne Moore provides the stand-out performance as Carrie’s mother, imbuing her with a human frailty, although she lacks the terrifying malice of Piper Laurie’s take on the role.

Peirce’s film is interesting as a point of comparison to De Palma’s – how more developed female characters subtly affect the narrative, how mobile technology is an inescapable, often pernicious, influence on modern society – but it lacks the clout and the conviction of De Palma’s more muscular, detached vision.