Saturday, December 21, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks: A Review

Dr. Skull and I went out in the freezing rain this afternoon to see Saving Mr. Banks, a movie I am certain you have heard of.

I'll say up front that I liked this movie.  Emma Thompson does a fine job, Tom Hanks is great, I love the Sherman brothers, most of it works quite well, and if the ending could have been less crowded (we barely get to see the sister who Mary Poppins is based on), well, the movie was already running long.

I even like the central theme of the film -- which it's not a spoiler to give you, since it's right there in the title: the conceit that artists create art as an act of redemption; as a way of creating justice which (because the world is a dark and broken place) is otherwise denied to us.

On the other hand.

I have always, frankly, disliked the movie Mary Poppins for what it does to Mrs. Banks.  In the books, the Banks family has a nanny because of the simple fact that British families of that era had nannies.

But in the movie, Mrs. Banks has a nanny because she's a bad mother, running off to marching for Equal Rights, the harridan.

This is touched on, very briefly, in the movie (so briefly that if you blink, you'll miss it), when Thompson, playing Travers, inquires of the scriptwriters why he has made Mrs. Banks a suffragette, and the scriptwriter says, well, it seemed odd to him that she would be neglecting her children otherwise, since she didn't have a job or anything.

Travers mutters a better explanation, about being overwhelmed by the work of mothering, and how not all women are suited to it  -- and the movie sweeps on.  Mrs. Banks is never mentioned again.

There is no attempt, in other words, to give a shit about Mrs. Banks, or about the redemption of little Minty's mother; or Walt Disney's mom (who never even gets a mention except as someone who feeds him).  The redemption of the father, locked away in the cage of labor, is central: the father who abuses the children, who torments and uses and fails his wife: his redemption is focused on.

And I don't argue with that.  It's a lovely bit of poetry.

What I argue with is what the film Mary Poppins did to Mrs. Banks.  In order to save the father, the man, are we required to erase the woman?

So that Mr. Banks can be saved, Mrs. Banks must tear down her dreams at the end of the movie, rip up her desire to be an equal citizen of the world (you'll recall at the end of the movie she tears down her suffragette sash to be a tail for John's kite), become subordinate and submissive, a servant to her husband and son?

The movie Saving Mr. Banks does, to be fair, show us the true story of what Mrs. Banks suffered.

That is, we see Minty's mother dragged along behind her husband, bearing too many children, living in misery and poverty and in subservience to him and to his dreams, in an attempt to keep the family afloat. We see the desperation to which it drives her.

What the movie doesn't give us -- for her -- is any solution.  The movie focuses only on Travers' father, on the importance of his life.  Perhaps this is even valid.  Little Minty did take his name as her own when she grew up, after all.

But this focus, on the father, this sidelining of the the mother / Mrs. Banks, does what the movie version of Mary Poppins did:  it tells us that women and their lives, women and their concerns, should be tossed aside, trashed, ignored in order to keep men and boys happy.  Ripped up to make a child's toy.

Our lives, our most sacred issues, are toys in comparison to any man's life, or even boy's life.

That's how little we matter.

UPDATE:  See also this, for something I totally missed, due to my utter lack of knowledge about Travers's biography.  The film Saving Mr. Banks erases Travers's bisexuality, her long-time partner, and (almost entirely -- there's one throw-away line) her adopted son.

I'd argue, as the linked article implies, that this erasure is done to refocus the energy of the movie on Disney -- to make it seem as though the agency and creation of the movie lay almost entirely with him; that Travers was a vessel he drew from and acted upon.  (His instrument.  His toy.)  In actual fact, as the linked article notes, Disney wasn't even in town during the events the movie covers.


sophylou said...

I just saw this movie the other night and was very uncomfortable with it for many reasons -- you've touched on a big one. I didn't see the sister -- the "real" Mary Poppins-- coming to save the father, I saw her as coming to save her sister, who must somehow have snapped out of her darkness/helplessness to send for her. Early in the movie, the mother mentions calling her sister as a last resort, which the father rejects, and later he makes malicious fun of the aunt (calls the black hen after her). He sees the aunt's potential involvement as a sign of his failure, and so he denies that her help is needed in any way. Mrs. Banks needs saving, and the film also erases any sign of her taking action-- that is, sending for her sister. The daughter wouldn't have, because her father wouldn't have wanted it. Mrs. Goff only gets to be weak. :(

delagar said...

You're making great points here.

I may have to do a follow-up post now!

sophylou said...

I may write a post myself as well once I'm back from holiday traveling. My mom and I ranted about the movie for a good long time...