Finding Neverland

cast: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Dustin Hoffman, and Radha Mitchell

director: Marc Foster

96 minutes (PG) 2004
Buena Vista VHS retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Tom Matic

This visually stylish period tearjerker traces the origins of the classic children’s fantasy Peter Pan in author J.M. Barrie’s friendship with the widowed Sylvia Llewellyn-Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four boys. Her son Peter (Freddie Sizemore) provides the model for the puckish hero of the adventure, although it is clear from the start that it is Johnny Depp’s Barrie who is really the ‘boy who never grew up’. Using his boyish fantasies to escape from the pain of marital incompatibility, he becomes the ideal playmate for the boys, setting up vividly imagined make-believe scenarios for them, involving pirates and Indians. His bond with them is also based on a shared experience of grief. He explains to Sylvia how he invented ‘Neverland’ after the death of his older brother. However, their overbearing and disciplinarian grandmother (Julie Christie) regards him as an irresponsible intruder, a view shared by Barrie’s own distant and glacial wife (Radha Mitchell), who resents the amount of time he is spending with the bereaved Llewellyn-Davies family. Thus in Finding Neverland, the mythical realm of the title is a metaphor for pretence, both in the positive sense of using play or make-believe to help alleviate trauma and tragedy, and in the negative sense of denying and avoiding reality. The dichotomy between these two opposing forms of pretence is exposed when Sylvia succumbs to TB, but refuses to acknowledge it, dismissing her symptoms as a “silly little cough.” When Barrie tells her to stop pretending everything is all right, Sylvia retorts that it was he who introduced pretence into her household.

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The story is a perfect vehicle for Depp, who has carved out a niche for himself as a chiselled cheek-boned purveyor of oddball innocence and romantic eccentricity in films such as Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and Sleepy Hollow. In his dealings with Dustin Hoffman’s theatrical patron, Depp’s Barrie does at first seem to the stage what Ed Wood was to cinema, with Mrs Barrie dutifully attending his opening nights and tactfully excising his poor notices from his newspaper. However Barrie’s wild and apparently unworkable ideas for his new play are vindicated, when Peter Pan is a surprise hit, thanks in part to Barrie inviting children along to the first performance. Both in the casting of Depp and in the heady lustre of the fantasy sequences that intrude into Barrie’s mundane reality, the influence of Tim Burton can be seen, and also that of Terry Gilliam (who cast Depp as Sancho Panza in his doomed ‘Don Quixote’ film). Marc Foster’s directorial style is not as quirkily flamboyant as these two auteurs of cinematic fantasy. But Finding Neverland is nevertheless full of striking visual touches and a sensual use of vivid colours, such as the brilliant red of the theatre’s curtain and the lush greens and floral display of the garden that Barrie transforms into an approximation of ‘Neverland’. Besides, apart from Barrie’s daydreaming interludes, Finding Neverland is more of a straight drama than either Gilliam or Burton (even at their most mainstream) would put their names to.

The quality of the acting is of the highest standard. Although in a sense cast according to type, Depp is to be applauded, not least for his more than passable Scottish accent – a rare achievement in an American actor. Kate Winslet does her trademark mumsy acting to perfection, while Julie Christie surprises not just by her puritanical persona, but by playing against it in the final scene. However the film does not resort to a cheap happy ending in this scene, nor in the epilogue, where the matriarch is as severe as ever with Barrie. For the most part, the Llewellyn-Davies boys – and Barrie’s dog – disprove the old adage about never working with children or animals, especially Freddy Sizemore as his protégé Peter. The supporting cast excel as well, and I don’t just mean Dustin Hoffman. Even the small parts, such as the actors in the theatre and The Office’s Mackenzie Crook as a theatre usher, are outstanding.

Undoubtedly Finding Neverland is an emotional drama with an aura of sentimentality, but with its understated approach and superb characterisation it avoids the manipulative mawkishness of much Hollywood feelgood pap. Perhaps that’s why by the end of it, there was a lump in the throat of this most cynical of reviewers.