Monday, 2 November 2015

A children's story with sad roots; women fighting for their rights; a man struggling to survive on a lifeless planet

The thing I really liked about the Mary Poppins books is that there was absolutely nothing soft of candy-flossy about her. She was stern. Smiling didn’t come naturally, if it came at all. She was briskly efficient and businesslike and no one messed with her, or at least, not twice.

So it was a bit of a surprise to see Julie Andrews in the film regularly sporting her trademark endearing smile, as though the hills were alive with the sound of music. Not Mary Poppins at all. Dick van Dyke likewise, apart from the unspeakable parody of a cockney accent, also had an unbearable niceness about him that had little to do with the P L Travers’s writing. And yet, somehow, in common with millions of others, I found the film as enjoyable as the books – if in a completely different way.

The beauty of Saving Mr Banks is that it shows how the bridge between those two creations was made. It’s a tear jerker and if that isn’t your cup of tears, then it’s probably worth keeping away from the film. Within its genre, however, it has to be one of the best.

Saving Mr Banks
Tom Hanks genial as Walt Disney, Emma Thompson less so as P L Travers
What the film explores is the gulf between the fantasy world of fiction and the real story that may well have inspired it. Travers had grave misgivings about allowing Walt Disney to make a film of her books, fearing precisely what happened – far too sweet an interpretation, a musical and, worst of all, cartoons. The film shows Disney, well portrayed by Tom Hanks, trying to convince Travers, superbly played by Emma Thompson as an adult and by Annie Rose Buckley as a child. Eventually, she gave way, but not before a great deal surfaced, about an adulated father wrecked by his own failings. It turns out that Mary Poppins really wasn’t there to help the children, but to save Mr Banks, the father. And we find out why.

Most films about the suffragettes focus on the wealthy ones who would suffer terribly while imprisoned, and force fed, but nonetheless returned to homes not utterly destroyed by their absence, because nursery maids had looked after the children and the family was able to eat without their mother’s wages. That makes Suffragette refreshing, because it focuses on a working class woman, powerfully portrayed by Carey Mulligan, for whom going to jail for her principles means far more than a few weeks suffering – it means jeopardising her family life and her ability to earn a living.

The film also shows one of the tougher problems of the British suffrage movement, its use of terror tactics. Admittedly, they used rather special forms of terrorism, designed to avoid injury to people, let alone loss of life, but bombs are bombs. It’s courageous of the film to confront the use of such weapons, by characters presented as sympathetic.

What it ducks, on the other hand, is the question of whether those tactics, and indeed the wing of the suffrage movement represented by such luminaries as Emmeline Pankhurst, actually did much to advance the cause. It also fails to answer a question that it raises itself by making the protagonist working class: had the movement achieved equal voting rights for women as for men, Carey Mulligan’s character would still not have had the vote – 40% of men were deprived of the suffrage at that time by a property qualification, which she would certainly have failed too. 

I was left wondering whether Pankhurst (played my Meryl Streep), or indeed the pharmacist (Helena Bonham Carter) who befriends Mulligan and makes the bombs, would have settled for votes for themselves or would have fought to extend them to all adults.

Helena Bonham Carter, Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep in Suffragette
The one in the middle would have been no better off with rights equal to men
Such small gripes apart, the film’s well performed and gripping.

Finally, The Martian is a refreshing new take on stories which have titles of that kind. The Martian is not a little green space creature, a native of Mars. Instead he’s a human being, Mark Watney, excellently played by Matt Damon, left behind in error by his crew mates, who believe he has died in the storm that forced their evacuation of the red planet.

The strongest feature of the film is its pursuit of realism. Watney works out how long he has to survive on Mars – nearly four years – with supplies that were designed to support a month long mission. Even though they were intended for a crew of six, rather than a single individual, it’s clear they won’t keep him going anything like long enough. So he has to find a way of growing food in the arid environment of Mars.

That’s a daunting challenge. So he doesn’t take it on. Instead he breaks it down into component tasks, and tackles each of them in turn. What does he have that could be made to grow? How can he turn sterile Mars soil into something capable of supporting plant life? How can he produce the water needed?

A step at a time, he finds solutions for problems which taken as a whole, seem insurmountable.

That spirit of realism and the philosophy of taking on a job at a time, as necessity requires, informs almost the whole film. It’s only at the very end that we get a moment of more traditional science fiction, where in the pursuit of drama, the makers have Watney do something completely brainless in a heroic gesture, a gamble on a single throw of the dice. Otherwise, the film only demands our acceptance of one or two minor inconsistencies and a single major piece of suspension of disbelief: we know that, in the present state of science at least, it’s impossible to get human beings to Mars, since they would be exposed to so much radiation that the journey itself would kill them.

Tom Hanks in The Martian
The loneliness of the long-distance gardener
Those seem small concessions to demand of an audience, to tell a great story. And the story’s a good one, well told. With plenty of tension. And a lot of humour.

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