Finding Neverland

Now that he’s making sequels to Pirates of the Carribean, Johnny Depp can hopefully steer clear of films that put people uncomfortably in mind, if just for a moment, of the recent Michael Jackson business. After this and Charlie and the Chocalate Factory, we’re ready to move on, Johnny.

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All kidding aside, this somewhat fictionalized account of the relationship between playwright J. M. Barrie (Depp) and the family that inspired Peter Pan is a singularly joyful tribute to restorative powers of the imagination. Even if Barrie’s flights of fancy cannot cure all the ills of the world, they have a decidedly beneficial effect on the recently widowed Sylvia Llewelyn-Davies (Kate Winslet) and her sons.

After meeting the family in the park, Barrie becomes a constant companion to the family, cheerfully indulging and encouraging the boys’ imaginative playtime. This doesn’t go over well with Sylvia’s stern mother, Emma du Maurier (Julie Christie), who’s suspicious of this odd man who spends so much time with her grandsons. Similarly displeased is Barrie’s wife, Mary (Radha Mitchell<), who sees far less of her husband than the widow Davies. By this time, however, it is pretty clear that their largely sexless marriage is already irretrievably broken. Barrie begins to pen what will become Peter Pan as a way of reaching out to Peter (Freddie Highmore), the son most deeply affected by the death of their father. Barrie’s skeptical producer, Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman), doesn’t quite know what to make of this story of fairies, ticking crocodiles and pirates. His concern is understandable, given that Barrie’s last play was an expensive flop.

Magnificent. The boy is gone. In the last 30 seconds… you became a grown-up.

Reality intrudes when Sylvia takes seriously ill, but she seems unwilling to face her condition. Barrie is unable to convince her to do otherwise, being the one who encouraged her and her boys to use their imagination to escape from reality. It ultimately falls upon her oldest son, George (Nick Roud) to assert himself as the man of the family and force his mother to face that reality.

Movies about writers can be a tricky business, if only because writing is just about one of least cinematic activities in which a person can engage. By moving seamlessly between the real world and the brilliantly envisioned world of Barrie and the boys’ imaginations, and then connecting that directly to iconic imagery from Peter Pan, this film portrays the writing process about as well as any I can recall.

The cast is uniformly excellent, with Depp effortlessly treading that fine line between Barrie’s more ethereal qualities and the grounded, sensible man he also was. Kate Winslet is equal to task of playing a vulnerable woman who puts her full faith in the power of Barrie’s imagination. Dustin Hoffman brings both wit and gravity as the producer who supports his eccentric playwright up to the point common sense tells him to yank on the reins a little.

The young actors playing the boys (Highmore, Roud, Joe Prospero and Luke Spill) are all remarkably unaffected performers. Highmore, who would do memorable work again with Depp in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, has the heaviest emoting to do, when his mother’s illness draws out his anger over his father’s death. Roud is also superb as a young man facing adult responsibilities while still remaining a child at heart.

Finding Neverland is a delightful ode to keeping alive your childlike imagination all through one’s life. Even hardened cynics will have at least a few tears jerked from them by the end of this movie.

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