Film — Finding Neverland (PG)

Finding Neverland (PG)

by Amy Diaz

Having exhausted his varieties of crazy, Johnny Depp tries on whimsy as the Scottish author James Barrie in Finding Neverland.

So sweet and whimsical is this movie that it even knows how to brush aside questions as to the whimsical goodness of Barrie. When he starts to take an interest in four boisterous boys and their widowed mother, we get a scene early on to tell us that 1) he does not have improper designs on the mother and 2) he does not have even more improper designs on the boys. He is, we are told, a man who lives a life of magic and, in this family, finally finds a group of people to share it with.

Oh, eye-roll, you might think, and Mary Barrie (Radha Mitchell), James’ wife, would agree. Early on we see this couple, after the opening of James’ latest play. It’s horrible, he says, and the audience seems to agree with him. As does Mary, a girl who seems too practical and too disappointed to have much faith in her husband any more. Their relationship seems tense and lonely, best defined by their post-dinner trip upstairs and their opening of doors to neighboring, but separate bedrooms — Mary’s door opens on to her bedroom, James’ door seems to open on some magical new land.

The disappointment of his latest play has him in something of a funk and it has his theater manager (Dustin Hoffman) worried. We need a new play, he tells James, write something.

Hanging out in the park, waiting for inspiration to strike, James meets Michael (Luke Spill), George (Nick Roud), John (Joe Prospero) and the surprisingly solemn Peter (Freddie). The boys, who vary in age from Michael (at about 5) to George (early teens), are under the watch of their mother Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winselt) a widow whose husband recently died (in debt) of unspecified health problems and who doesn’t appear to be in the best health herself.

James, intrigued by the serious nature of the about-9-year-old Peter and delighted by the adventurous and fantastic imaginations of his three brothers, befriends the family, much to the dissatisfaction of Cecily’s mother (Julie Christie). With the boys, he plays Indians and pirates and talks about a place called Neverland. Enough of this pretending and James begins to find a plot thread that can weave the Davies boys’ adventures into a play. He also starts to bring out Peter, who has never quite gotten over his father’s death and is afraid he will lose his mother with just as little warning.

Finding Neverland is just as sappy as it sounds — full of surprising moments of genuine emotion and tear-jerking sadness. Impressively, however, the movie never feels manipulative or cloying. Sure, this much bittersweetness might not be everybody’s favorite flavor but, unlike so many movies of the children-with-dead-parents genre, it is at least not a product of artificial additives.

All of the adults in Finding Neverland do a commendable job with material that, in less steady hands, could have become quite soggy. Julie Christie in particular keeps her character from becoming a one-dimensional caricature. She is a wealthy woman with social stature, we learn early in the movie, who disapproves of the attention James pays to her family. But, her disapproval is pretty grounded in fear and concern for her daughter. She wants her daughter to be able to remarry and she’s suspicious of what this man may want from her already fragile family.

Ultimately, however, the movie truly belongs to Highmore’s Peter. His serious expression and outwardly emotionless demeanor perfectly capture the idea of a child who no longer wants to be a child because of the pain he believes is inherent to childhood. Viewed through this child’s story, Peter Pan becomes less about a boy living out eternal id and more about the idea that change is a scary painful thing that children, with their already limited control on the world, feel powerless to face.

The true find of Finding Neverland comes in a better, deeper understanding of Barrie’s surprisingly complex play.

- Amy Diaz

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