Written by Films

Captain Phillips and Saving Mr Banks

Tom Hanks managed to somehow both open and close this year’s London Film Festival with a pair of very different films that I managed to see within twenty four hours of each other.

Some film-makers demand to be seen, whatever they do. And Paul Greengrass is one such film-maker. Captain Phillips opened this year’s London Film Festival, and now that it’s on release, it’s easy to see why.

It tells the true story of Richard Phillips, the captain of the Maersk Alabama, a container ship that was travelling down the Somali coast in 2009, which was attacked and boarded by pirates. While this was big news in the US, I must admit that I wasn’t aware of this particular story. Perhaps it’s the all too frequent nature of pirate attacks in that part of the world, with shipping lines seemingly powerless to do anything about it.

Greengrass shows the story from two sides. So we get a modicum of Phillips’ home life in the US before he sets off to Oman to board his vessel. And at the same time, we get a bit of background of the Somali village where the locals are expected (and indeed want) to work for the pirate gangs. Once things get going, they happen quickly. Greengrass employs his usual docudrama style, with handheld camera work, and a general feeling that we’re there for real events. The producers obviously shot the film on real container ship, and we also get views from the skiffs with their high-powered engines chasing down their prey.

The performances from Barkhad Abdi and the other actors of Somali origin are terrific – all the more so for being non-professional actors. You really understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, even though it’s also clear that although big ransoms are being paid, these guys are not the ones getting the cash.

As the tension is ratcheted up, I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen. Events get bigger, and the performances are terrific. But I don’t want to say much more aside from suggesting that this is a superb film that you should see!

For a complete change in tone, there is Saving Mr Banks which, as I mentioned, also stars Tom Hanks as another real person – this time Walt Disney. But Saving Mr Banks is really a tour de force for Emma Thompson who plays P L Travers, author of the Mary Poppins books. The film tells the story of Disney trying to persuade Travers to sign on the dotted line and let him make the film. He’s been trying for twenty years to get her to sign over the rights, but Travers has some very particular views on what she will and won’t let happen to her characters.

Nonetheless, drawn to a beautifully captured sixties Los Angeles, she reluctantly works with Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B J Novak) as they try to put a script and the songs together. All the while, Travers insists that everything is recorded on tape – because she’s convinced that she’ll be double-crossed by Disney or someone else.

Every character in the film is delightfully drawn, with Paul Giametti as her driver standing out.

The story is told via a series of flashbacks to Travers’ own youth living with her troubled father, and put-upon mother out in Australia – played by Colin Farrell and Ruth Wilson. This isn’t so much a framing device as an essential understanding of what made Travers tick.

I really enjoyed the film, and now certainly need to see Mary Poppins again – celebrating its 50th anniversary. A lovely film.

And for goodness sake, don’t leave the cinema early when the film ends – stay in your seat. As well as seeing photographs of the real characters, there’s a delightful Easter egg which I shan’t spoil now.