Anyone who finds the Academy Awards race depressing should look away now, because yes, the purpose of this article is to drag “Saving Mr Banks” fresh from its world premiere at the London Film Festival last night into the unedifying discussion of what its chances of Oscar glory may or may not be.
The film’s combination of Hollywood history and British literary heritage - both of which are prime Oscar catnip - have meant that it has figured automatically in awards speculation, sight unseen. But following its unveiling, is it going to go the way of “The Artist”, will it settle for the fate of “Finding Neverland” or could it be the new “Miss Potter”?
The short answer is none of the above. Reviews so far have been pretty positive, but hardly raves, and the film has certainly not revealed itself as a major Best Picture contender. That being said, it is a very funny, well-acted, audience-friendly film that could gain traction in several key races.
This is the category in which seeing the film offers the least amount of clarification as to its Oscar prospects, in part because the number of nominees remains undetermined, and some fellow contenders are yet to be seen. There is no chance of the film winning, but at this stage I would bet on a nomination, as it feels like the kind of picture that will be popular with Academy voters. However, like “Julie and Julia”, it is a film of two uneven halves, which sags slightly every time it cuts from Hollywood to turn-of-the-century Australia, and it remains to be seen how kind American critics will be (there were very few in London). The film’s biggest threat for a nomination may be “Philomena”, which could appeal to a similar demographic with its combination of wit and sentimentality deftly balanced by a popular British star.
In her best role since her 1990s heyday, Emma Thompson is very much in contention for a fifth acting nomination. The British critics are more or less unanimous in their praise, with the Telegraph’s David Gritten saying that “her bravura performance effectively dominates the film”. It’s a large comic performance with a big, obvious moment of catharsis, but Thompson imbues it with subtleties beyond the script (which fails to mine Travers’ complex personal life as it could have). It’s not a contender for the win, and as in Best Picture, its biggest threat to a nomination may be Judi Dench’s performance in “Philomena”. However, it still seems very possible that the pair will join Blanchett, Bullock and Streep in the first ever Best Actress line-up with an over-40s policy.
Best Supporting Actor
Some reviews have praised Colin Farrell’s performance as Travers’ alcoholic father, but personally I side with Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian who deems the part to be “played blandly and without much inspiration”. Technically, he gets the most scenery to chew, but I can’t see it entering the race. It is a different story for Tom Hanks as Walt Disney. A relatively low-key role, it is nonetheless a warm, appealing part featuring a final monologue that goes to great lengths to humanize Disney the legend. Hanks sells it well, though there’s a chance that the role will become the focus of criticism that the studio’s portrait of its own founding father is too sugary to swallow. However, I’d say it’s more likely that Academy voters will lap up the first major film portrayal of the most successful Oscar winner in history, giving Hanks the possibility of two nominations in one year. Could he even win his third Oscar, a year after Daniel Day-Lewis did the same? Somehow it doesn’t feel like even Michael Fassbender automatically rules out the prospect, perhaps because the category has seen its share of villainous roles in recent years. Though the performance doesn’t exactly demand it, it doesn’t feel like a foolish bet to me.
Best Original Screenplay
The defining dual structure of Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith’s screenplay is actually not very successfully rendered, but the blame for this may fall on director John Lee Hancock. It remains an inventive concoction, with plenty of well-delivered witty dialogue, which always goes down well in this category. But with a lot of high-profile contenders, including Woody Allen, Spike Jonze and the Coen Brothers, the competition is fairly stiff this year. I would still predict a nomination, but given the script’s history as a Black List hot property, its standing in this race has perhaps marginally slipped.
There are prospects in other categories. Thomas Newman’s score begins and ends with a treacly piano arrangement of “Chim Chim Cher-ee”, but assuming this does not rule it out of contention for Best Original Score it seems a good bet on Newman’s name alone. Given that this would follow eleven previously unsuccessful nominations, he could even win. Production Design and Costume Design can’t be ruled out either, if only because the work is rather obviously on display in this double-narrative period piece.
As for the other performances, there is fine work from several actors - my personal favourite being Jason Schwartzman’s sweet attempts to charm P.L. Travers from his piano stool - but none will enter the race (Rachel Griffiths part is extremely minor). As may have been inferred, Best Director is not happening for John Lee Hancock, who fails at his primary task of uniting the film’s two strands in tone and purpose.
In all honesty, “Saving Mr Banks” is the kind of the film that makes the Oscar conversation feel unwholesome - a perfectly enjoyable piece of cinema that in no way stands as one of the superlative cinematic achievements of the year. But since that has never stopped them from handing out trophies, nor us from speculating, there are your tips.
Matthew Hammett Knott is a London-based filmmaker and writer. Follow him on Twitter.
Check out Indiewire's latest chart of Oscar predictions here.