"Savings Mr. Banks" is worth seeing for Emma Thompson's peerless performance as "Mary Poppins" author PL Travers. That Thompson was not nominated for a best actor Academy Award is a crime. Thompson's performance is one of the most compelling and convincing performances I've ever seen.
Thompson plays PL Travers as a witch, and I'm using the nice version of the word. You know what word I really mean. Thompson's Travers is thoroughly believable. This isn't a cartoon villainess. This isn't Cruella DaVille or Maleficent. This is a woman you could imagine having as a boss or a neighbor. You'd do everything you could to avoid her. She doesn't learn any lesson. She doesn't reveal that we are all warm and fuzzy if you just get close enough.
Some have criticized "Saving Mr. Banks" for this reason. They say that it's sexist to depict a successful woman author as being a witch. Baloney. It would be sexist to depict her as warm and cuddly. Women can be unpleasant. I know plenty of women like Travers. It isn't liberated to insist that all women are nice. Plenty of women are not nice at all.
I found Thompson's depiction of Travers to be so powerful that the rest of the film didn't measure up, for me. Part of the film takes place in 1961. Travers is in Hollywood, working with Disney studios on their film adaptation of her book "Mary Poppins." Part of the film is a series of flashbacks to Travers' childhood in Australia. In the flashbacks, Colin Farrell plays Travers' alcoholic father. The flashbacks didn't work for me. They had the feel of an afterschool special. Everyone was so good looking, especially Colin Farrell, even while suffering the health effects of alcoholism. Annie Rose Buckley, who plays the author as a child, is cherubically beautiful. The scenes depicting the alcoholic father disappointing and humiliating his daughter, and breaking her heart, did not affect me at all. They felt paint-by-numbers – oh, this is the predictable scene where the little girl realizes her father is a loser.
The 1961 scenes in Hollywood worked much better. Paul Giamatti is amazing in the small part of Travers' limo driver. He brings a wallop of humanity and poignancy to his role that really swept me off my feet. The two develop a real rapport, and they could have taken up much more of the film. Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak are also brilliant as Robert and Richard Sherman, who wrote the songs for Mary Poppins. In one scene, Travers objects to Robert Sherman's walking with a cane. The film doesn't mention this; I wish it had. Sherman was only 19 or 20 years old when he participated in the liberation of Dachau. He was shot during the war. That's why he walked with a cane.
Tom Hanks as Walt Disney didn't really work for me. Walt Disney was a totemic figure from my childhood. I remember him, in his TV appearances, as rather godlike – avuncular and yet distant, impenetrable. While watching Emma Thompson as PL Travers, I got the sense that I was watching something like the real PL Travers – a real, complex, human being. While watching Tom Hanks as Walt Disney, I got the sense that I was watching Tom Hanks play a sanitized version of Walt Disney. "Saving Mr. Banks" was very brave in its depiction of Travers, but very vanilla in its depiction of Walt. Giamatti as the fictional limo driver had more depth and complexity.
The movie is most valuable as a character piece. It tries to say some big things about how people live through sorrow, like Travers' childhood, and survive that sorrow by creating art about it, like "Mary Poppins." That big idea really didn't wash for me. I know it's possibly true, but that message just didn't grab me, so the movie was not a ten, but it's certainly worth viewing for Thompson's performance, for her interplay with Giamatti and the Sherman brothers as played by Schwartzman and Novak.