Marc Forster, USA / UK, 2004
Posted: December 08,
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
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
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