Mary Poppins is the heroine we need for these dark times

Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins.
Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins. Photo: AP

I’ll admit it: I was in it for the chance to sit in an air-conditioned, darkened room for two hours, and not talk, and not be obliged to actively entertain my small companion. My small companion was in it for the ice-cream. She had never been to the movies before, so didn’t know what to expect, beyond the promise of ice-cream.

Most of life is like that when you’re three-going-on-four - you’re very much at the mercy of what the adults around you decide to do.

You operate on blind trust and hope for treats.

Illustration: Reg Lynch
Illustration: Reg Lynch Photo:

In a roundabout way, that’s what our choice of movie, Mary Poppins Returns (and of course, the magnificent original) is about.

It’s a lark, but it’s also a reminder of how the adult world impinges on the child’s.

Adults worry too much, get irritable and have no time. Kids have easy access to joy. They use play as a riotous defence against all the grown-up stuff and nonsense, as Mary would put it.

I went in expecting dark, cool quiet. I didn’t get the quiet - my companion was too full of questions, particularly about a complex sub-plot involving mortgage foreclosure.

I emerged with wet cheeks and the firm belief that Mary Poppins is the heroine we need for our dark times.

Mary is self-possessed, dismissive of pomposity, drily witty, never sentimental, intolerant of fools, but forever kind, and always open to the wondrous.

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She seeks adventure but is always home in time for tea.

One of the first scenes has Mary (played by Emily Blunt, a brilliantly worthy successor to Julie Andrews) arriving at the Banks’ house.

The Banks children have grown up and are in trouble. Michael Banks is a widower and struggling single parent who knows he is failing his children but is too stressed out to fix it.

He and his sister Jane have convinced themselves their original adventures with their childhood nanny were not real.

They are flabbergasted when Michael’s eldest son snags Mary Poppins on a kite and brings her home. Mary strides across their entry-hall, chides grown-up Michael for saying “you haven’t aged a bit!” (because it’s not polite to discuss a lady’s age), and regards herself approvingly in the hall mirror.

“It’s good to see you!” says Michael.

“Yes, it is, isn’t it,” says Mary, as she smiles into her reflection.

Mary’s quiet self-satisfaction is one of the most interesting parts of the contemporary take on the old classic. Where else do little girls (and boys) see what healthy female self esteem looks like? The new Mary, like the old Mary, believes herself to be “practically perfect in every way”. Her self-confidence is supreme, and she considers herself a match for every situation. Where else do girls get this message?

Mary brings order and fun to the new generation of Banks children, who are saddened by their father’s sadness, but able, like all children, to live in the moment and respond fully to adventure when it’s put before them.

“Off we go!” Mary whispers to herself as she dives, fully clothed, into the soapy bath the children have just disappeared into. There is a whole world down there, an underwater fantasy, and a song to go with it.

Later, when the children jump into the picture depicted on a chipped Royal Doulton bowl, she chides them: “We’re on the brink of an adventure, children. Don’t spoil it with too many questions!”

This, apart from being a great line all parents can steal, is a timely caution to the overly cautious - sometimes, you just have to relax and go with it.

Why did my face leak so much as I watched this film? I was not alone in that. Emily Blunt has given multiple interviews about how her husband and her father both blubbed uncontrollably when they saw her depiction of Mary.

“Most people cry when they see this film,” she has said.

“I think sometimes childlike wonder and a sense of joy are sometimes seen as trivial things, and maybe people don’t revisit those parts of themselves very often.”

Seeing Mary Poppins Returns has sent us on a Mary Poppins jag, back to the original, which really is perfect. Music-wise, we have listened to little else since.

As adults we can get so busy bossing children, we forget how often they get it right.

The climax of the old film comes when little Michael Banks decides he wants to give his tuppence to the lady who feeds the birds at St Paul’s Cathedral.

His stuffy father wants him invest it in the bank, where it will be used to fund great colonial projects like “railways through Africa!” and “dams across the Nile!”

Mr Banks tells little Michael that he will gain a sense of “conquest” as his affluence expands “in the hands of the directors/Who invest as propriety demands”.

But Michael takes his tuppence and bolts.

Given what we now know about banks, his decision seems solid.

As we face 2019, already brimming with culture wars, suffocatingly high temperatures and a looming election, it seems to me we will be in need of Mary Poppins’ greatest trait: her unflappability.

Twitter: @JacquelineMaley

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