I suspect a lot more than just a 'spoonful' of sugar has been sprinkled over this charming and florid tale of PL Travers' reluctant collaboration with Walt Disney to adapt her beloved Mary Poppins to the silver screen. In real life, Travers allegedly disliked the film; got snubbed for the premiere; and banned Disney from future involvement with the story (hence no sequel). Does it matter that the filmmakers here have tweaked events to make a genuinely feel good movie with stunning performances? No, not really. I love Mary Poppins the movie, and I loved this too.
Emma Thompson is amazing as Travers, playing her as a stuck up British cow but with an underlying tenderness that few actresses could pull off. She's stubborn, rude, intransigent and thoroughly insufferable. Yet it's apparent from Thompson's performance (even without the flashback signposting) that she's also soft centred and quite vulnerable. Her loveable American co-stars Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak seem to genuinely care for her. And Tom Hanks' gives a splendid portrayal of uncle Walt. He has a warmth in the role that seems to melt through Thompson's ice; that's especially true in a scene near the end where he delivers a tear-inducing and persuasive monologue that left me shattered. Best performance after Thompson however might be Colin Farrell's fabulous portrayal of Travers' father- seen via a string of intercut flashbacks to her Australian childhood (it might even be my favourite Farrell performance save for In Bruges). Her life with him; an alcoholic bank manager yet devoted father provides the bulk of her inspiration. An Mary Poppins is ultimately his story. When Walt explains that to her, she finally accepts he's onto something special.
If that all seems heavy, it isn't. John Lee Hancock directs with a breezy levity and feel-good sentiment that balances the drama perfectly. I love the scenes with Paul Giamatti- the kindly driver who shrugs off every rude remark from Travers and resolves to be her friend whether she likes it or not. But her interplay with Hanks is golden. The two personalities- equal and opposite in every way- are constantly pushing each other, like how she insists on calling him 'Mr Disney' while he insists on calling her 'Pam'- much to the others' annoyance.
My only criticism is that the flashbacks seem timed, as mentioned, to manipulate the audience into feeling emotion at the 'right' moments. This seems unnecessarily heavy-handed. Thompson's performance- her eyes alone- convey what she's feeling without needing to 'see' what's in her head. Nevertheless the final act is so emotionally charged its hard not to get swept up in it. It's one of those times when fiction is preferable to reality. Did I get teary eyed? Yes I did.