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Finding Neverland

Marc Forster, USA / UK, 2004

Rating: 3.3

 

 

Posted: December 08, 2004

By Laurence Station

Finding Neverland is a fictional imagining of the circumstances that inspired Scottish writer James Barrie to create Peter Pan. Those wishing to pick nits with the story's wildly liberal reconfiguring of the chronology of Barrie's life, or to point out how it glosses over the more intimate details of the childless author's relationship with his wife (unconsummated, allegedly due to Barrie's impotence), will find empty purchase for their quibbles. Finding Neverland is a fairy tale about the creation of a fairy tale. In that respect, it mostly works, despite employing shamelessly mawkish plot contrivances.

Finding Neverland essentially banks its success on lead Johnny Depp, playing Barrie as an asexual, courteously playful dreamer who only seems irritated when real-world obligations encroach on the intricate fantasy world occupying the bulk of his headspace. Take Depp out of this film and it would cease to exist. Meaning the casting director got it right in choosing an actor who consistently elevates the material he's associated with. Imagine Pirates of the Caribbean sans Depp. Can't? Point made. It's the small details Depp brings to the role of Barrie that make his portrayal so effective. Barrie's accent, for instance, is wisely understated, never falling into excessive "Groundskeeper Willie" parody.

The story takes place in Edwardian England roughly a century ago, and involves Barrie's relationship with a young, widowed mother (Kate Winslet, saddled with a one-note part) and her four boys. One of the children is named Peter (talented Freddie Highmore), and he's the most skeptical of Barrie's flights of fancy and championing of imagination in the face of adversity. Little Peter took his father's passing particularly hard, and is resentful of the "stories" he was told during the man's final days, feeling he was deceived and then cruelly let down. Naturally, Barrie will teach Peter to celebrate make-believe and even use it in times of grief as a place of comforting refuge.

After his initial meeting with the widow and her family in London's Kensington Gardens, Barrie begins spending considerably more time with the mother and her boys than he does with his own wife (Radha Mitchell). This only exacerbates the already tense situation in the Barrie household. Challenging Barrie on the other side is Julie Christie, playing the boys' overprotective grandmother, who questions the playwright's interest in her daughter. These are creakily artificial devices, as is the nagging cough Winslet's character exhibits, one that steadily worsens as the film progresses. Thankfully, director Marc Forster avoids a weepy deathbed scene, choosing instead to have the tragic mother step into "Neverland" before expiring.

The real enjoyment of Finding Neverland comes from the melding of reality and fantasy. While Winslet struggles to put the boys to bed, Depp's Barrie imagines the foursome rising off their mattresses and floating out the window. There's also a clever instance during the opening sequence, in which Barrie envisions a rainstorm inside the theatre as his latest play bombs. Being that the film isn't bothering with strict biographical accuracy, more inventive moments like these and less concerning beautiful dying widows and icy spouses would have greatly strengthened the narrative. As it stands, Barrie's crucial relationship with American-born patron Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman) is left badly underdeveloped.

Finding Neverland is carried by Depp's charming performance, but frustratingly undercut by a lack of artistic daring -- ironic, considering the film's earnest championing of fantastic flights of fancy. More whimsy and less "reality" (i.e., less manipulative tearjerker mush) would have made this trip to "Neverland" a journey truly worthy of its authorial inspiration.

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