The Play's the Thing
Inspired by his relationship with the Llewelyn Davies children, James M. Barrie created Peter Pan, an enduring children’s classic. Finding Neverland, a sweet tearjerker starring Johnny Depp, depicts how this famous Scottish playwright combined fantasy and real life while writing a play that even his usually supportive producer thought sounded ridiculous. How could any producer not be skeptical, especially about a production featuring such outrageous things as flying children, a dog as a nurse, a flickering light representing a tiny fairy, an alligator with a ticking clock inside its body, and a main character who never wants to grow up?
In his second memorable role this year as a writer (remember Secret Window?), Depp delivers an extraordinary performance, one marked again by meticulous attention to detail. He depicts Barrie as alternately sad and playful -- but always fascinating. Depp’s understated Scottish accent seems perfect for the character he’s playing, and his soulful brown eyes register a range of emotions as Barrie faces his loveless marriage, a failed play, a new friendship with an ailing widow (Kate Winslet) and her sons, and the work involved in writing a new play.
Some of the best scenes in Finding Neverland occur between Depp and an immensely appealing young actor named Freddie Highmore (Two Brothers), who plays Peter, the youngest of the boys Barrie befriends. There’s a strong chemistry between these two, and I’m glad they’ll be together again in the upcoming Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Barrie tries to help Peter and his brothers enjoy their childhood by engaging them in imaginary role playing, and, at first, it seems obvious that Barrie patterned Peter Pan after the young Peter. I say “at first” because later the boy insists Barrie himself is the real Peter Pan.
Winslet (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) simply couldn’t be better as the single mother of four boys who needs help and welcomes Barrie’s attention, even though her own mother (Julie Christie) objects strenuously. Winslet endows her character with a “courage-under-fire” attitude that’s impossible to resist. She’s splendid here; it’s my favorite Winslet performance.
Unfortunately, Radha Mitchell (Man on Fire), who plays Barrie’s aloof wife, speaks so softly I couldn’t hear her most of the time -- and her lovely statue-like face didn’t help me understand her any better. Still, she’s quite beautiful and looks stunning in those elegant period costumes.
Set in the London of 1903, Finding Neverland boasts the lush appearance of a Masterpiece Theatre presentation. It jumps back and forth from Barrie’s colorful imagination to the events happening around him. And, saving the best for last, a heartwarming opening night performance of Peter Pan serves as the film’s climax -- complete with flying children, dog as nurse, and a boy who never wants to grow up. Even Barrie’s skeptical producer (Dustin Hoffman) is pleased.
Because there’s a lot to admire about this film, I feel reluctant to point out its faults. Still, that’s part of my job -- so here goes. As directed by Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball) and written by David Magee from a play by Alan Knee, Finding Neverland takes considerable liberties with the facts, especially where the Llewelyn Davies family is concerned -- and I've read that the family’s descendants are upset about it. While “dramatic license” like this may improve the story, I question its ethical implications. And, although Finding Neverland is rated “PG,” I’m not sure most children will enjoy it. Despite the fantasy and game-playing scenes, it’s a very sad and slow-moving film. It lacks the kind of joy and humor Barrie offered the children he befriended. Finally, hinting at a pedophilia accusation, even in one brief scene, seems unnecessary and spoiled some of the film’s magic for me.
Nevertheless, magic is in the air throughout much of Finding Neverland, and I applaud the film’s emphasis on Barrie’s desire to make children happy. It’s a fitting theme for a movie about a man who donated his perpetual Peter Pan rights to a London children’s hospital.
(Released by Miramax and rated “PG” for mild thematic elements and brief language.)