It’s hard to say exactly what it takes to get Meryl Streep to be in your movie, but Rob Marshall has now managed to land the world’s greatest actress, twice, in his movie-musicals.
The director said that the Oscar-winning (and Oscar-winning and Oscar-winning) actress whom he worked with in Into the Woods was swiftly drawn to his 2018 sequel Mary Poppins Returns primarily because of its message of optimism — she apparently called it a gift to the world. But on the literal, literal flip side, Streep’s role in Mary Poppins Returns is also just a jolly amount of fun.
She’ll play Topsy, a cousin of Mary Poppins who receives a visit from the nanny (Emily Blunt) and the Banks children during their adventurous lessons. (If other cinematic universes can share Captains Marvel and America or Men Iron and Ant, you better believe that P.L. Travers’ world of Mary Poppins books established a literary universe of Mary Poppins’s shocking multiplicity of cousins.)
Streep gets her own song, penned by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (see them rehearse here), when she welcomes her young guests to her world, which is lived almost entirely in upside-downs and opposites. Not only does Topsy twist the kids’ perspective on seeing the world, but the enthusiastic character has also been flipped in gender from the character’s incarnation in Travers’ book.
Generally with Mary Poppins Returns, the eight-book series should be taken as inspiration, not definition, and that’s certainly the case with Topsy. In the “Topsy-Turvy” chapter of Mary Poppins Comes Back, Mary’s gravity-defying cousin is actually a man named Arthur Turvy, while Topsy is his maid-turned-wife. Costume designer Sandy Powell is pulling the character’s looks from a vintage inspiration board of flapper eccentrics, adorned with turbans and trinkets and all sorts of weird-aunt jewelry; in the book, Topsy is described as a “round, red-faced woman, looking more like two apples placed one on top of the other,” and it’s a fairly safe assumption to say that this does not nor will describe Meryl Streep.
A twist on the book also applies to Colin Firth’s character, William Weatherall Wilkins. At various points throughout the novels, Wilkins is swept up in some of Mary’s extracurricular magic, but in this film, we meet Wilkins as the head of Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, where young passionate artist Michael Banks works as an employee. After the death of Michael’s wife, Michael seeks out the kindness of his boss following a grave oversight involving an eviction notice on Number 17 Cherry Tree Lane. Wilkins is surprisingly genial — if still properly, enigmatically English.
Last on the list of buzzy A-listers in Mary Poppins Returns is someone you won’t see much, but certainly will remember: Angela Lansbury will pop up in the film as the Balloon Lady, a park-dwelling old woman (first introduced in Travers’ second book) whose magical way with balloons will — again, quite literally, or rather, literarily — send Mary, Jane, Michael, John, Annabel, and Georgie flying.