The gaps in Saving Mr Banks scream to be noticed — what happens between the sweet, imaginative, tremulous Ginty Goff, and Miss Travers, the crotchety, chic and red-lipsticked dame who holds the keys to something Walt Disney very much wants and refuses to release them for mere filthy lucre? While the film links Miss Travers to Ginty through (some might say excessive) flashbacks, a great deal must have occurred between the ages of 10 and 60, between the Australian drawl of Ginty and the clipped upper-middle-class accents of Miss Travers, between the blazing red dust of the Australian outback and the twee terraced house with the cherry tree outside it.
Apparently, between Allora and Los Angeles, Travers fell in with various spiritual gurus, travelled the world, was a published journalist and poet, had a stint acting, and did a great deal more with her life than write about a stern governess and whimsical adventures that she always insisted were not “children’s books”–and the people she knew, her triumphs and suffering, and her accomplishments and ambitions far exceed the brief list I have given as well. She was, as everybody is, a person of contradictions, who tried to hide her past (including her name and nationality) but gave hints of it in her work, and wanted no biography but meticulously kept records and sold them to public archives. (Lawson uses this last as a justification for breaking Travers’s command to have no biography, which is a bit tenuous.) Suggestions of the author’s vulnerability and powers appear in Emma Thompson’s marvellous performance in the film, but unfortunately the gaps in the film don’t allow her to fulfil the full potential of the role and the story.
Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P. L. Travers (1999) goes a long way towards connecting the dots, but unfortunately–or perhaps inevitably–draws some of its lines out of conjecture and flights of fancy, trying to recreate Travers’s process and imagery–”she might have felt this” or “she probably remembered that.” Nevertheless, it’s a persuasively argued biography, with the evidence it produces going a long way towards sharpening a great deal of the sugar of Saving Mr Banks. I won’t spoil all the revelations, but I must say that if Disney did indeed use this biography as a basis for the film, it’s an extraordinary case of double-think at work; Travers’s experience with Disney did not end in a heartwarming scene of reconciliation between Walt and P. L., and she publicly criticised the film for the rest of her life. I recommend Mary Poppins, She Wrote to anyone who loves the books (not children, though!) and was left wanting by the film.