Practically perfect in every way. If there was a telling quote to sum up the nostalgic glow that radiates from Mary Poppins Returns, that would be it.
Who would even have imagined we would be here? Mary Poppins is without doubt the most popular and beloved live action Disney production of the 20th century, and its significance as a piece of family friendly culture that transcends America to the UK and beyond is unparalleled. It helped make a star of Dame Julie Andrews and netted her an Academy Award in 1965. It saw Dick van Dyke sport an English accent he has been both mocked and adored for over half a century. It featured songs, such as ‘Step In Time’ and ‘Supercalifragolisticexpialidotious’ which have been immortalised by several generations of school children and adults. Mary Poppins, for millions, represents the magic of childhood, and a childhood exposure to cinema.
The fact Robert Stevenson’s original film even exists is a curiosity of fate itself, given the author of the Mary Poppins source material, P. L. Travers, struggled with the ‘Disneyfication’ of her subject matter. If you want the story of how Walt Disney came to convince Travers of the magic in the film he wanted to produce, watch John Lee Hancock’s delightful Saving Mr. Banks, but it was a significant challenge. Disney is a problematic figure to history now in many ways, despite the pillar of joy he built his empire on, but he was right about the film Stevenson ended up making. Mary Poppins may not have been immortalised as Travers imagined her, but she became, and remained, one of the strangest and beloved female characters in the history of motion pictures.
Mary Poppins Returns, then, is a challenge on multiple fronts. How do you replicate a film so resolutely of its time while equally outside of it? How do you replace Andrews or Van Dyke? How do you beat the quirkiness of a picture which blended live action with animation, musical show stoppers, and a thematic reach balancing childhood, social mobility and capitalism (not to mention the looming spectre of war)? Mary Poppins Returns has the answer, and it’s really quite simple.
I went to see A Quiet Place at Cineworld Birmingham Broad Street on April 5th at the 16.40pm showing. This may seem a strange way to begin the piece but I type this in some vain hope that the two people sitting directly next to me, who didn’t stop nattering to each other for the entire duration of the film (when not checking their phone or crunching popcorn), might end up reading this. The irony of having to tell people off for talking during a film all about the absence and power of sound is not lost on me. So if you are reading this, guys, thanks. For nothing.
The reason I bring this up is precisely because John Krasinski’s impressive third feature suggests that we are living in a world where, as a society, we have lost touch with the amount of noise we collectively make. People blast out music on buses with no regard for anyone around them, or in their cars for effect as they travel around; they shout at one another with little self-awareness of those around them; they talk during cinema screenings, as mentioned above, in what would be a serious code violation in the eyes of the gentlemen of Wittertainment (if not *the* biggest violation). Noise, and the pollution of it, is something we take for granted. Quiet or silence is at a premium in the modern world, hence why it’s such an original idea for Krasinski and co-writers Bryan Woods & Scott Beck to ask – what would happen if noise became deadly?
Adaptations of novels to film are notorious in having two schools of thought once the picture is released – those who read the novel, and those who didn’t. Mine is the second camp, though my fiancee did, and she assures me The Girl on the Train hasn’t survived the transition from page to celluloid well.
A bestseller list hit from debut novelist Paula Hawkins in 2015, The Girl on the Train was fast-tracked into production once the rights were snapped up by Hollywood. They thought they had another Gone Girl on their hands, David Fincher’s well constructed adaptation of Gillian Flynn twisted mirror on the trauma of marriage in 2014 being both a critical and commercial hit. Hawkins’ work has, on paper, plenty of the same psycho-sexual thriller elements which pitch these kind of novels as modern day versions of 80’s or 90’s sex-based thrillers that Joe Eszterhas would pen and Paul Verhoeven might direct.
Would that the film version of The Girl on the Train be so visceral. Tate Taylor, best known for emotional American drama The Help, has neither the perverted, steaming fantasy of Verhoeven or the slick, poised understanding of Hitchcockian thrills of Fincher. What could have been a modern Rear Window meets Fatal Attraction ends up being a damp squib, a plodding, leaden and un-focused film which at just 110 minutes feels more like 180. You have to wonder if it takes skill to direct and edit such a slog of a picture from source material known by many to move with far more impetus and grace.