Active Imaginations

But it's not really true

FINDING NEVERLAND: Directed by Marc Forster. Written by David Magee, based on the play, The Man Who Was Peter Pan, by Allan Knee. Produced by Richard N. Gladstein. Executive producers Gary Binkow, Neal Israel, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Wenisten, Mischelle Sy. Cinematography, Roberto Schaefer. Editor, Matt Chesse. Production design, Gemma Jackson. Costume design, Alexandra Byrne. Music, Jan A. P. Kaczmarek. Starring Johnny Depp, with Kate Winselt, Julie Christie, Radha Mitchell, Dustin Hoffman and Freddie Highmore. Also, Ian Hart, Joe Prospero, Nick Roud, Luke Spill, Kelly Macdonald and Eileen Essell. Miramax Films, 2004. PG. 101 minutes.

This friendship between playwright James M. Barrie and a family of young boys carries the freight of our era, in which the natural, asexual attraction between child and adult creates hysterical fantasies of pedophilia in the leaders of the religious right. Barrie himself might have been that rare creature to whom the sexual drive was less animated than were his dreams and fertile imagination. We don’t know. But I do know that’s the way Johnny Depp plays him in this film, and his is a persuasive portrait.

Barrie (Depp) meets Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her fatherless sons in Kensington Park, where the boys are playing, and the writer is making notes for a new play. In a previous scene, Barrie’s wife, Mary (Radha Mitchell), has made it clear to him she is tired of their bland marital relationship. An unhappy man, Barrie is touched by the high-spirits of the youngest of the Llewelyn Davies’ boy, Michael (Luke Spill), who crawls under Barrie’s bench to hide from his brothers.

The relationship between Barrie and the family grows when Sylvia thanks Barrie for helping 10-year-old Peter (Freddie Highmore) grieve for his recently deceased father. Barrie tells the boy he isn’t trying to take his father’s place, and Peter learns to trust him. The film suggests a romantic connection between Sylvia and Barrie simmers from the beginning, but if so, it produces little or no steam. Admiration, certainly. Winslet makes a heroic, strong, hands-on parent.

Sylvia’s aristocratic, censorious mother, Mrs. Du Maurier (Julie Christie), however, raises the temperature. She disapproves of Barrie spending so much time with her daughter’s family and says so. Living in turn-of-the-century London, she is concerned about her daughter’s reputation, since Barrie is a married man.

In reality, when Barrie became friends with Sylvia and the boys, her husband was still alive, so both were married. Liberties with facts abound. Finding Neverland is less about history and more about the solace and joy the creative imagination can play in human affairs.

Depp’s performance is his warmest ever. He genuinely likes Highmore, whose award-worthy portrait of a sad boy is truly remarkable. Highmore understands that less is more, showing restraint and maturity far beyond his years. He and Depp respect each other as actors, which makes the boy Peter less a model for Peter Pan than even the writer believes. Late in the film, Peter tells a theater patron the real Peter Pan is Barrie himself.

Winslet’s grounded, warm-bodied performance as a loving maternal woman of diminishing health does not play as attention-seeking or pitiful. Sylvia won’t see the doctors until Barrie shows her that her condition threatens her boys’ fragile self-confidence. In real life both Depp and Winslet have children, and here they model good parenting. Peter Pan shows that the Darling children had a comfortable, supported childhood. As a child, I identified with Wendy, who might be patterned on Sylvia.

Finding Neverland does not hold together as a film. Robbed of tension, it is a fractured work with no concrete connection between the dominant story of Barrie’s relationship with the family and the secondary story of the stage production of Peter Pan. Barrie tries to heal Sylvia by showing her scenes from the play. An inadequate bridging device at best, the scene draws attention to the wide gap in realities of the widow and the writer.

Now playing at Cinema World, Finding Nevermore will bore little children expecting Peter Pan. Recommended for Depp, Winslet and Highmore’s able performances.