Mark Reviews Movies

FINDING NEVERLAND

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Marc Forster

Cast: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Radha Mitchell, Freddie Highmore, Dustin Hoffman

MPAA Rating: PG (for mild thematic elements and brief language)

Running Time: 1:46

Release Date: 11/12/04 (limited); 11/24/04 (wide)


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Review by Mark Dujsik

Stop me if you've heard this one. A famous writer meets a woman without a husband and forms a relationship with her. There's also her child, to whom he feels a connection. The relationship helps inspire the writer, and terminal illness ends it early. No, it isn't Shadowlands but Finding Neverland, a partially true, partially fictional account of the events that led to J.M. Barrie's writing of the play Peter Pan. There are major differences between the two stories (there are four children here, not one; the woman is a widow, not divorced; etc.), but some things about Finding Neverland ring far too familiar—and not just in terms of its similarity to Shadowlands. What ultimately makes it work as an earnest tear-jerker is the creative output, from Marc Forster's restrained direction to a bevy of subdued performances. Indeed, Forster—especially considering the shift in tone and content from Monster's Ball—seems in line to become a rare breed of chameleonic director, who can adapt and succeed within the boundaries of whatever material with which he is presented.

In London in 1904, Barrie (Johnny Depp) is attending the premiere of his newest play, anxiously awaiting the public's response to it in the lobby. As the show progresses, it is clear that his latest work is going to be a failure. This means the once bankable playwright has a scant amount of time to write a new play and for it to be a success or else his producer Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman) will have wasted money on a space without a show. Following his custom of going to the park with his dog to write, Barrie happens upon a family of four boys playing. He joins in, and strikes up a conversation with the boys' mother Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet). At home, Barrie learns from his wife Mary (Radha Mitchell) that Sylvia's husband passed away recently, and she suggests her husband invite the family over for dinner. Accompanying them to the invitation is Sylvia's mother Mrs. Emma du Maurier (Julie Christie), who instantly takes a disliking to Barrie and his unorthodox, childish behavior. Barrie continues to spend time with the family, and eventually, a mixture of his own imaginary world and the muse of one of the Davies boys named Peter (Freddie Highmore) lead him to his ultimate creation.

The film is based on the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee and has the feel of chamber drama. A lot is left unsaid, whether it be in scenes showing the final steps of decay of the Barrie marriage or talk of rumors regarding the nature of Barrie's relationship with the boys. The latter is mentioned once, which may seem odd considering the real-life rumors surrounding the man who literally originated the Peter Pan Complex. It solidifies the central aim of the film, though, and that is one of absolute innocence. In this world, there is no room for nasty conjecture, and we are meant to assume that such people simply want to taint an innocent thing. Barrie's games of make-believe are what keep such darker themes at bay.  This is, after all, a man who created a crocodile with a clock inside it to represent the inevitableness of time, although that is the most blatant connection the film makes to his keen awareness of something ultimately depressing. The scene comes when a theatre-goer who has recently lost her husband deliberately states it, but the tone of the film keeps the moment merry, as if she is glad to recognize the link.

The scene seems a throwaway, as if to remind us of Barrie's gloomy themes but keep the proceedings light. That isn't to say the film ignores the inherent sadness of the story, and some of the more effective scenes handle it in a subdued fashion. Take a scene in which the young Peter realizes that his mother is ill and is reminded of the events before the passing of his father (Freddie Highmore's performance is a marvel for a child actor), or the way in which Sylvia exits the film, stepping into Barrie's fantasy world as the light slowly fades. Somehow, these moments have more emotional resonance and seem more honest than if they were handled with blatant emotional outpouring. The same goes for a scene that adds a slightly tragic turn for the Barrie marriage, in which Mary tells her husband that she wanted to be included in his world, a desire she says Barrie overlooked. Johnny Depp's quiet, subtle performance helps us understand why no one is invited into his fantasy for so long. It is his own—a haven outside of the strictures of society for which he clearly has little esteem. As Peter—at first skeptical of Barrie's flights of fancy—grows to believe them more, we too accept the film's concentration on innocence.

And by the time house light go down on the premiere Peter Pan, we have to go along with it. Orphans are brought in to fill up empty seats, the older theatre-goer ponders the significance of the crocodile, and a private performance helps heal all. All of this would seem terribly manipulative if not for Forster's surprisingly low-key presentation. Finding Neverland wants us to believe, but instead of desperately forcing itself on our inner-child, the film takes its time and allows us in of our own accord.

Copyright © 2004 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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