In pursuit of Mary Poppins
Emma Thompson is grappling with the notion of female heroism, perhaps unexpectedly in the context of Mary Poppins. But something within the whimsical tale of a magical English nanny speaks to her of a brand of valour not bound up in guns and derring-do.
Speaking about her role as Mary Poppins' creator, PL Travers, in Saving Mr Banks, Thompson says female heroism is a quality not easily portrayed on film.
"If you are not going to do what has been done and give the girls guns and get them to do the same things as the male heroes, only with skirts on, then what is it?" she asks. "Of course, it's hidden. It's hidden in the skein, warp and waft of life's fabric; that's where female heroism resides."
At 54, Thompson has played a broad sweep of characters, from the campaigning lawyer Gareth Pierce in In the Name of the Father to the eccentric Professor Sybil Trelawney in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. As Pamela Lyndon Travers in Saving Mr Banks, she goes head to head with Tom Hanks' Disney, in a battle of wills over how Mary Poppins - described in the books as "practically perfect in every way" - should be brought to the big screen.
Disney pursued Travers for years, convinced of the filmic potential of her tale of an enigmatic nanny who is delivered by the east wind to the London home of the Banks family. Arriving at 17 Cherry Tree Lane with the aid of an umbrella, she uses magic to bring unbridled joy into their lives. Though created within the realm of children's literature, Mary Poppins is a literary figure who keeps esteemed company in Britain's libraries.
"The great female authors, the Brontes, George Eliot, they're living in moral universes where their actions do mean a lot, but it's the detail of the action that gives you the heroism," Thompson says. "The actions themselves aren't grande geste, they're small things that all add up to something. That's not what we associate with the hero; the hero has to be someone who jumps off a building in his vest and knickers and does something and saves people's lives or acts bravely. That's how we've defined it for ourselves. It's finding that in the female form that is so hard."
Saving Mr Banks is as much the story of Mary Poppins as it is the woman behind it. Travers had a complex childhood in Australia that she spent most of her adult life attempting to erase. The film reveals a Pamela Travers at war with herself, torn apart by a childhood in which she watched her alcoholic father Travers Goff (Colin Farrell) die, and her Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths) step in to look after her mother Margaret (Ruth Wilson) and the family.
"Pamela had a very conflicted relationship with her birthplace," Thompson says. "It wasn't where she wanted to be."
Travers flirted with journalism and acting before leaving Australia for England in 1924.
"I find that fascinating," Thompson says. "Given she became utterly fascinated by myths and myth cycles, you would have thought she would have just gone on walkabout with the Aboriginals, the greatest storytellers of all human tribes. When I was in Australia, learning a bit about that, even scratching the surface of that, was utterly fascinating. Everything about their culture is story. Everything. More than any other culture. So you go, 'Why didn't you go back and explore that?"'
Instead, Travers created Mary Poppins - the quintessential British nanny who would become such an integral part of the Disney story. After finally agreeing to Disney's request for the film rights, Travers travelled to the United States to work with Disney and his team - writer Don DaGradi (played by Bradley Whitford) and composer-lyricists Robert Sherman (BJ Novak) and his brother Richard (Jason Schwartzman).
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the film is the recreation of a series of audio excerpts from those meetings, played almost word for word by Thompson, Hanks, Whitford, Novak and Schwartzman.
Although Thompson listened to the original recordings for research, she did not study them in detail. "I think they sort of enter you osmotically," she says. "It's hours and hours and hours of listening to these poor boys drowning in negativity, and you can't listen to it for very long without, in the end, becoming negative yourself. She's impossible with them. And was clearly messing with them. And was clearly in a state of deep distress."
What was useful, Thompson says, was "listening to how her breath was working in her body, the juddering of her breath, and listening to the fact that under this overt act of co-operation was a covert act of sabotage that was coming out of a profound terror and distress. And so that was very helpful to me because it gave me what was behind the recalcitrance."
Like her relationship with Australia, Travers wrestled with Hollywood, initially disdainful but clearly unwilling to let it go. Almost, I suggest to Thompson, like a celebrity herself.
"That's a very perspicacious way of putting it," she says, smiling. "She's tidal without reason. When she says 'I don't want any red in the movie', she's just testing. She wants to just stop them. Again, there is this overt act of co-operation which she has always been determined to sabotage.
"But it's slightly unacknowledged within her. She's a very clever woman. She understood there were things going on ... she's not unconscious of what's going on inside her."
Although Travers' search for inner peace seems partly resolved by the film's conclusion, she remains curiously enigmatic, despite the fact the audience has shared her clash with Disney, and understood her sense of loss. Thompson herself knows something of the push and pull of fame, and of the way story can be used as camouflage, just as Travers seems to use the perfect world of Mary Poppins to insulate herself.
"For me, it's different," she says. "Life throws things up and perhaps because it's mysterious what comes towards you at certain times, it's a bit like learning a word and suddenly somebody says it six times in the course of a day. Or books that would come your way just when you need them."
For Thompson, whose fantasy is to play a female Sherlock Holmes, the search for a heroic identity that is uniquely female continues.
"Is the heroic role unisex? Or does it mean there is an area of life which remains unexplored, which contains stories which remain untold? I suspect that's the case and it will be very interesting as this generation gets into its stride to see what those stories turn out to be."
Sydney Morning Herald