Watch: Saving Mr. Banks
Directed by John Lee Hancock (Walt Disney Studios, 2013)
It’s not hard to find a film that centers on someone who is suffering. In fact, it’s probably harder to find one that doesn’t. What distinguishes Saving Mr. Banks from other films is that the suffering of its main character, P. L. Travers, results in the creation of the beloved Mary Poppins. It also forces the viewer to consider the relationship between suffering and the creative life.
Saving Mr. Banks captures the brief period of time when the wildly difficult and unhappy Travers worked with Walt Disney to adapt her work, Mary Poppins, for film. Tape recordings and firsthand accounts confirm Travers’ cantankerous nature and her unwillingness to bend to the Disney aesthetic. Through flashbacks, the viewer is made aware of the childhood difficulties that brought Mary Poppins to life and why preserving her is so important to Travers.
The lesson seems to be that suffering can be a hole that swallows us up or it can be a force for escapism, a hole to a different, separate world. For authors such as Maurice Sendak, Roald Dahl, Eric Carle, and even Walt Disney, suffering was the motivation for the characters that give so many of us joy. In Saving Mr. Banks, we cannot ignore the gifts that some people were given to deal with such suffering.
Emma Thompson captures both the unlikeable shrew and the lonely child in pain that exist in P. L. Travers. And while Tom Hanks is amiable as Walt Disney, the unexpected standout performance comes from Paul Giamatti. As Travers’ limo driver, Ralph, Giamatti brings a subtle sadness tempered by a hope-filled spirit to his exchanges with the prickly author.
The film offers many answers to the question of how and why we suffer. What it doesn’t offer, as in life, is a definitive answer. Nor do we want it to. Saving Mr. Banks is a lovely, balanced film. In the end, it isn’t really about the suffering. It’s what we do with it—or in spite of it—that matters.
This article appeared in the March 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 3, page 42).