Fantasy-filled biopic soars with imagination, emotion
Directed by Marc Forster
Cast: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie
Finding Neverland sits more or less on the opposite end of the spectrum from Kinsey, this week’s other biopic offering. Both are intelligent, well-made and worthy Oscar contenders. They have wildly different subject matters, however, and approach them from completely divergent ends. Whereas Kinsey is brainy, mature and thought-provoking, Finding Neverland is creative, whimsical and emotional.
The subject of Finding Neverland is noted Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie. Barrie (played here impeccably by Johnny Depp) was a well-known journalist and playwright in late Victorian England. Finding Neverland picks up Barrie as his fortunes have more or less turned south. His plays are no longer the toast of London society and his relationship with his wife (Radha Mitchell) has grown frosty. One day, while working in Kensington Gardens, Barrie chances to meet Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet), a young widow with four boys in tow. Barrie is instantly impressed with the imaginations of the young Davies lads, Peter, Jack, George and Michael.
In time, Barrie is finding excuses to go to the park and meet up with the lovely young widow and her boys. Soon after, he’s organizing elaborate pirate games, setting up weekend jaunts with the family and asking if maybe that extra maid the Barries have lying around couldn’t be put to use helping out poor Mrs. Davies. Obviously, Mrs. Barrie doesn’t take too kindly to the loss of her husband’s attention (if she ever had it to begin with). Sylvia’s stern mother (played with authority by Julie Christie) also doesn’t appreciate the idea of a married man spending time with her daughter. Thanks to his interaction with Davies and her boys, however, Barrie starts to concoct an outlandish tale about pirates, Indians, fairies and a magical flying boy--a tale that will prove to be his lasting legacy.
Finding Neverland isn’t strictly autobiographical. It isn’t interested in presenting a detailed depiction of Barrie’s life. Instead, it uses a few basic facts about Barrie’s life to spin a wonderful speculative tale about the power of imagination and the source of creative inspiration. The sequences in which Barrie’s imagination bursts into full, theatrical life are magnificent--everything that Tim Burton’s Big Fish should have been, but wasn’t quite. Certain historical truths that don’t fit in are simply excised from the tale. (Davies, for example, was married to a very live man when Barrie knew her.) Questions of Barrie’s sexuality (he was possibly impotent, probably quite uninterested in sex and most likely not a pedophile as some have suggested) are brushed aside. His relationship with the Davies boys is one of kinship and understanding. His relationship with Sylvia Davies is filled with a kind a chaste, purified love. There are hints of “well, in a perfect world ...” speculation on the part of many characters here. But it is that very “what if” scenario that fuels all of Barrie’s life, internally and externally.
Barrie eventually takes a special shine to Peter (Freddie Highmore), who is still quite shaken up by his father’s death. He responds by growing up very quickly and refusing to participate in any of Barrie’s foolishness. The tension between uninhibited childhood and looming adulthood (and between youthful imagination and adult responsibility) is one of the main points of Finding Neverland. Refreshingly, the script finds a healthy appreciation for both.
No one out there needs any proof that Johnny Depp is a great actor, but here’s more fuel for that fire. His J.M. Barrie is a living, breathing person. There are plenty of performers out there who can act like someone. Depp is one of the few I know of who can think like someone. Look at him in the quiet moments of this film. It’s astonishing. You can see him thinking. You know what it is he’s thinking. What’s more, you know he’s thinking not as Johnny Depp, but as J.M. Barrie.
Finding Neverland is flat-out magnificent. It’s heartwarming without ever being sappy. It’s wonderfully imaginative, yet grounded in reality. And it’s hard to hit the end credits without crying and feeling wonderful all at the same time. Trust me, not even dour old Captain Hook himself could fail to be uplifted by this film’s effervescent charm.