They’ve made a sequel to my favourite rom com of all time. Well, sort of…
Watching Saving Mr Banks, it’s difficult not to imagine PL Travers literally spiraling in her grave. The film, brought to us by the Disney company, tells the story of the culmination of Walt Disney’s 20-year battle to secure the film rights to Mary Poppins, when in 1964 Pamela Travers finally travelled from London to LA, to oversee the development of the film, before agreeing to sign on the dotted line.
Travers was a notoriously controlling character, as was Disney, albeit in a very different way. While the latter, as played here by Tom Hanks, used charisma to get his way, Travers (Emma Thompson) was implacable and ruthless. Much of the film plays this conflict of character for comedy as Walt tries to charm the socks of an unbending Pamela, and with it, Saving Mr. Banks goes a long way in charming its audience’s socks off.
In between we get two other stories: a flashback to Travers’ childhood and the tragic genesis of Mary Poppins in her imagination, and in ‘current time’ the development of the film of her book, helmed by visual scriptwriter, Don DaGradi and the Sherman Brothers, who wrote the songs, over the course of a fortnight at Disney’s Burbank studios.
As Travers battles against every tiny little decision DaGradi and the Shermans make, she increasingly ruminates on her childhood relationship with her alcoholic father (Colin Farrell). Even though the flashback segments of the film are supposed to poignantly underpin Travers adult eccentricities and isolation, they’re the weakest, possibly because of Farrell’s performance, which is so increasingly over the top, a sense of realism is sacrificed. Plus these are the parts of the film when Emma Thompson, who literally shines forth with complicated brilliance from every scene she swallows up, is not on screen.
Tom Hanks plays Disney as an inscrutable character, a man who insists on all his employees using his first name, but who is barely accessible on an emotional level. Even in the big moment, in which Walt ultimately convinces Pam to sign over her book’s rights by describing his own brutal childhood, you get the sense of a showman pulling heartstrings to his own ends.
The idea that Travers would have been convinced by such sentimentality is what might have her spinning in her grave. Yes, she did weep throughout the screening of Mary Poppins at a lavish Hollywood premiere to which she wasn’t actually invited, but it wasn’t because the film’s father-child relationships resolved her own childhood suffering. Instead she felt Disney had bowlderised the book she so identified with. She refused to give him rights to any of her other Poppins novels, and the truth is she signed over the first two, from which the Oscar winning film was adapted, because of financial difficulties.
Truth aside, Saving Mr. Banks is a rare thing, a Disney film that’s a very adult entertainment. Whether it will melt your heart will depend on how you like your adult entertainment, dolloped with a spoonful of sugar or ten in the closing reels or not. But in the meantime it’s a witty, dark and acerbic, and even though the Disneyfication of Travers triumphs, it’s not afraid to cast a cold eye over the mass consumerism at the heart of Disney’s particularly American dream. Indeed, old Walt might be spinning in his grave too, just a little bit.
The fast-paced, hyper-theatrical exuberance of Baz Lurhman’s style is like filmic Marmite. His first film, Strictly Ballroom was the perfect vehicle for his vision, a small-budget project made large with over-the-top performances and a cartoon-like quality that was funny, fresh and endearing. Since then, as Lurhman’s budgets have increased, the exuberance has grown and grown, while the endearment factor has relatively diminished, dipping to absolute zero in his last outing – the execrable epic that was Australia.
His version of The Great Gatsby crashes into our cinemas on a similar wave of hype to that which pre-empted Australia, but there’s no denying that Lurhman is the perfect director to take on a remake of F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel and maybe finally do it justice. After all, it’s a book that might have been the architectural blueprint for Lurhman’s house of cinematic cards.
In one of the director’s regular nods to the 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz, as opening credits for this Gatsby unfold they morph from black and white to colour. There’s a sepia pallour to the opening scenes too, until the action shifts to Gatsby’s parties, and the colour explodes, over-the-rainbow style. There’s the quality of a colourised black and white photograph to the film, giving it an odd retro feeling that along with some disconcerting 3D effects, bring us into the hyper-jazz age action. Fatty Arbuckle or Clara Bow might pop out from behind one of the lush shrubs on Gatsby’s grounds, and you wouldn’t blink an eye. Lurhman plays around with 3D in a painterly way too. Words and numbers are etched on the screen and then dissemble and float towards you, snowflakes fall and dance right in front of your glasses.
The Great Gatsby is a story about male consumption, whether it is of fast cars, big houses, booze, or most importantly, women. It’s about the haves and the have-nots, and at its heart is a man who once had nothing, but now has it all, and still wants more. Gatsby’s reaching for the stars, and at the zenith is Daisy Buchanan, the woman he desires above all things but can’t own, because she belongs to another man.
Lurhman’s cartoonish style lends itself perfectly to the tale. It’s amped up so high that the tragedy of the have-nots, Myrtle and George Wilson – who represent the dull, eternal grindstone that is the underbelly of the American dream – gets lost in broad comedy and Grand Guignol performance from Isla Fisher and Jason Clarke, respectively. But that’s okay, because this Gatsby is not about the underbelly; it’s about the surface. It’s about possessions and possessiveness, and at its heart is a character putting on one hell of a show, like a swan that’s paddling crazily beneath the water.
This film is exactly that – one hell of a show, paddling hard. And it’s a very enjoyable show too. The casting of Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby is Lurhman’s trump card. He’s an actor of such depth that he can bring heart and emotion to the most frivolous of scenes, and even though he has to say “old sport” about 3,000 times, he wipes the floor with everyone else on the set, bar maybe the sharp-eyed Joel Edgerton as the Gatsby’s nemesis, Tom Buchanan.
Apart from her costumes, the usually brilliant Carey Mulligan is a disappointment. But then again, Daisy is little more than a cipher for all the selfish dreams the men in this story cradle. She has little to do but look stunningly beautiful, bored, wistful, or cry tears that look like diamonds running down her perfect cheeks. The edgy Elizabeth Debicki as Daisy’s friend, Jordan Baker completely outshines Mulligan.
The one character that appears in every scene is, of course, the narrator, Nick Carraway, as played by Tobey Maguire. His performance annoyed the woman sitting next to me, but I found him to be pitch perfect, in that you completely forgot he was there, even when his face was peering out at you in 3D. Tom Buchanan says to Nick early in the film, “I know you like to watch, and that’s fine with me,” and that’s fine with us too. He’s the human filter through which this story of a crowd of vaudeville performers can somehow be grounded in reality.
In the end, although it leaves us with a message about the meaning of life and all that jazz, you forget it instantly. The Great Gatsby is about spectacle. You exit the cinema remembering the costumes and the frenetic dancing more than any underlying serious theme. Fitzgerald might be turning in his grave – The Great Gatsby is supposed to be a Great American Novel after all – but as Lurhman proves, he deserves this kind of treatment.