Saturday, January 04, 2014

Saving Mr. Banks

"He calmed the storm to a whisper, and the waves of the sea were still."  Ps. 107:29

Saving Mr. Banks is the backstage story of how Walt Disney's Mary Poppins came to the silver screen in 1964.  It follows the journey of Pamela "P.L." Travers (Emma Thompson) as she considers selling the rights to her Mary Poppins children's stories to Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and his team.

What we come to learn, over the course of this film, is that Mrs. Travers - who comes across as brash, irritable, and judgmental to all she meets - has become who she is after a childhood of pain and broken dreams. We learn that she grew up in the wilderness of Australia with a strict and long-suffering mother Margaret (Ruth Wilson) and an alcoholic father Travers Goff (Colin Farrell), whose condition makes him both playful with his daughter and irresponsible in his work.

Mrs. Travers has obviously overcome the difficulties of her childhood to produce some of the most beloved stories featuring an otherworldly nanny, Mary Poppins.  For years, she resisted the advances of movie studios to make her fantastic tales into feature films including Mr. Disney.  But when faced with an uncertain economic future, she finally agrees to visit California to assess whether or not to sell her rights to Walt and the Disney production team.

Throughout our own lives, each of us has - at some point (or several) - experienced a storm brewing up within us like Mrs. Travers. Perhaps we are not unlike the Mary Poppins author - and our own upbringing has caused us some anxiety and affected our outlook on life.  Or perhaps we are just prone to bad days every now and then.  Either way, we can experience days on stormy waters.

On those days, encountering people can be a chore - even more so if they come across as overly happy and cheerful.  Imagine meeting the bright and optimistic Walt or the songwriting Sherman Brothers (played in this film by B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman) - and one can understand why Mrs. Travers might have rejected such playfulness.

What the folks at Disney headquarters didn't realize was the storm that was stirring in Mrs. Travers' soul. Thanks to hindsight, we (the film's audience) can finally appreciate what was going on in her life. But Walt, the Sherman Brothers, and screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) had no clue.

Now in his eighties, Richard Sherman recounts his own memories of P.L. Travers' visit to California, as reported by Chad Jones of the San Francisco Chronicle:

"Nobody ever talked about those weeks for years," Richard Sherman says in a suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel.  "God, was Mrs. Travers difficult. She was impolite. She was, shall we say, a hard woman to figure out. Very strange.  Enigmatic. Haunted by something."  (for the full article, click here).

Had they only known. But thanks to the magic of movie-making, we now know a little more.  We can see the storms raging within Mrs. Travers.

When we have our own storms raging within us, we wish others would know and understand. And sadly, we all won't have feature films made of our lives for posterity to appreciate.  But Mrs. Travers' experience can help us, whether we find ourselves in her shoes or when we stand in for Walt and Co.

Perhaps as a way to compensate for their misunderstanding, Saving Mr. Banks' filmmakers created a special character to accompany Mrs. Travers in the movie: her Los Angeles chauffeur (Paul Giammati).  This character, while fictional, provides the author with a compassionate and listening companion. He, along with Walt Disney (in the latter half of the film) represent the Psalmist's image of God:

"He calmed the storm to a whisper, and the waves of the sea were still." - Ps. 107:29

Sometimes the storm brews within us.  When it does, let us seek out the Lord in the silence of our faith or in the comfort of a friend, a memory, or the words of a fellow traveler on the journey of life.  Let us be open to others, and pay attention that our storms may be affecting the way we treat those around us.

And sometimes the storm brews in others, while we stand by and watch.  When that happens, let us be the chauffeur, gently listening to and praying with those whose storm is raging.  And let us give others the benefit of the doubt.  Difficult people, as Richard Sherman recalled, might be "haunted by something."  They may have more to their story than we realize - if only we have the courage and the time to discover it (and if not, then God give us the calm assurance that, underneath others' difficult veneer, a child of God is still present in the soul of that person).

Who or what can calm the storm within you?  And how can you calm another's tempest?  Let us pray for each other as we all search for those answers.

No comments: