Emma Thompson spins silence into gold

The Fresno BeeDecember 18, 2013 

LOS ANGELES — Actor Emma Thompson has repeatedly shown her ability to command attention without saying a word.

One of the most memorable examples came in "Love Actually," a holiday tale of romance released 10 years ago with her unforgettable quiet performance as a heart-sick spouse.

She does it again with equally mesmerizing work in "Saving Mr. Banks."

The new holiday feature film looks at the efforts by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) through the late '50s and early '60s to secure the rights to the Mary Poppins books written by British author P.L. Travers (Thompson). The writer was afraid to sign away her books because she was convinced Disney would treat her magical nanny with a lack of respect in a quest for financial gain. It's no spoiler to say Disney prevailed since "Mary Poppins" became a film classic.

"Scenes without words are bliss to do," Thompson says during an interview at the Beverly Hills Hotel, the same place where Travers stayed in the early '60s as Disney pleaded his case. "Reacting scenes are wonderful to do. Not because one is frightened of words or learning words or using words. Of course not. But just because you're not so active somehow. It's not even that you're passive, but you're just responding."

One memorable scene is when Travers sees the movie for the first time. Thompson wanted to show the huge reaction Travers had to seeing how Disney treated Mary Poppins with grace and beauty, while also taking the stories to a new level through the movie musical starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke (Travers didn't want either in the movie).

Director John Lee Hancock clearly remembers the day that scene was shot at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.

"We were talking about it and how this would progress, and the number of cameras and you told me, 'I'm not sure where the bridge will be built, but once I know, I can cross it again and again.' And I thought that was just fascinating, 'cause I'm not an actor, but to, but to witness that was amazing."

Speaking or not, Thompson found Travers fascinating because the author was so complicated.

"She was like going into a maze. Round some corners, you'd find this terrible monster. And round another corner you'd find a sort of beaten child. So she was the most extraordinary combination of things," Thompson says. "And I suppose that was the scary thing, because in films, we often get to play people who are emotionally, or at least morally, consistent in some way. And she wasn't consistent in any way."

Thompson brought 30 years of TV and film experience to the film, including her 1993 Oscar-winning performance for best actress in "Howards End." Her other Oscar was a writing award, for best film adaptation in 1996's "Sense and Sensibility." Her work has ranged from an appearance on the NBC comedy "Cheers" to the special-effects driven film "Men in Black 3."

It's debateable as to who is the most famous nanny in films — Mary Poppins or Nanny McPhee — but Thompson's connected to both. The one edge goes to McPhee because, unlike "Mary Poppins," there was a sequel to "Nanny McPhee." But it doesn't look like there will be any more adventures for McPhee.

Thompson loved making the second film, but it didn't do well enough at the box office in the United States to spark interest in a third film. If someone were to come up with the funding, it wouldn't take a spoonful of sugar to get Thompson to return to the role.

TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, rbentley@fresnobee.com or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.

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