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Film Colony/Miramax

Official Site

Director: Marc Forster

Producers: Nellie Bellflower, Richard N. Gladstein

Written by: Allan Knee, David Magee

Cast: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Nick Roud, Radha Mitchell, Joe Prospero, Freddie Highmore, Luke Spill, Dustin Hoffman


On the surface Finding Neverland is a film about the man who wrote the play, Peter Pan, and the specific events that were his inspiration. We find that man, J.M. Barrie (Depp), coming off a disastrous theatrical failure and in need of some spiritual diversion, which he happens to find in the form of four young boys on a pastoral outing in Kensington Gardens. These boys belong to a newly widowed Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Winslet). This may be the classic setup for a romantic tale, but things are complicated by the fact that Barrie is married to the beautiful, if aloof, Mary (Mitchell). This romantic setup may be no less classic, but we find instead that the primary love interest is the platonic relationship between Barrie and the boys, most especially the young Peter (Highmore).

The actual facts in the case of J.M. Barrie are somewhat different, and one could make a much different movie if the focus of the film were on Barrie and what truly motivated this friendship. Reading Barrie’s adult novel that preceded the play by two years, The Little White Bird, where Peter Pan first appears in print, is most interesting. However, that would be a different film, and it is only important to remember that this movie is not exactly historically accurate. I do not mean at all to suggest that the film is wrong, that truths have been concealed, but rather that the motivations and intentions of Barrie have been simplified for a different purpose. Suspend the idea that this movie is a charming biography and think of it instead as a film about the essence of artistic creation. This is not some dry, academic pursuit, but a rich exposition of the intersection of imagination and reality, full of the frustration of human imperfections and the cruel fates of incompatible possibilities and unfortunate mortality.

With this in mind, an odd, nagging irritation about the fact that Depp doesn’t even remotely look like Barrie, coupled with some questions about whether Barrie had tattoos on his hand, is made somewhat less irritating.

On the centenary of the play’s first production, Finding Neverland is a wonderful gift to the legacy of Peter Pan, a much better gift than yet another version of the story. What arises from this film is a deeper understanding of the possible meanings of an almost surrealistic play with which we have become all too familiar. Rather than providing trite and reductive explanations, the film allows the viewers to make their own inferences, giving the play’s symbolism a more immediate and uniquely personal interpretation. As with Penn & Teller, revealing the source of the trick only enriches the magic. The masterpiece of innocent childhood wonder, from a time before this past century of cynicism, is allowed to live again, fresh and alive.

David Magee, in adapting Allan Knee’s original play, The Man Who Was Peter Pan, has crafted an elegant film. Director Marc Foster (Monster’s Ball) has masterfully orchestrated and illuminated outstanding dramatic performances from all concerned. I was especially fond of the crucial contribution of Julie Christie as Mrs. du Maurier, Sylvia’s dour mother, source of unending social realism and antagonist to Barrie’s fanciful optimism. Her intensity allows the scenes that she shares with Depp to transcend obligatory symbolic opposition and truly illuminate the theme of the film. There will be a great deal of appropriate attention given to the four young actors who portray the boys, especially Freddie Highmore as Peter. In a film which lives or dies on creating a contrast between a believably realistic world and a fanciful world of imagination, the depth of their performances assures success.

Foster’s visual style will serve as a wonderful film students’ textbook on examples of the formalistic use of film in light and shadow, suggestive camera movement, even in the optics of the wonderful cinematography of Roberto Schaefer. In fact, the film may be just a little bit too obvious at times, playing just a tad too much to melodramatic sentimentality. Of course, most of you are going to justly call me an idiot for questioning the foundation of a “three-hankie masterpiece.” My favorite teacher from film school, Pat Ogle, was fond of pointing out that clichés become clichés because they work. This film works. Gentlemen, for what you look for in a “date film,” Finding Neverland will open up the soul, and might even pry yours open a bit as well.

Lastly, I wish to applaud the use of music in this film. Jan A.P. Kaczmarek provided a beautifully understated and extremely effective score. Even more commendable is the deletion of the end credits “Peter’s Song,” by Elton John. Elton John may be one of the greatest songwriters of our time, but there is no song that could be written that wouldn’t instantantly destroy the delicate atmosphere that the film labored to create. Perhaps, since I wasn’t in one of the earlier test audiences that actually heard the song, I shouldn’t even talk about it. In my heart, however, I know that we owe those audiences, whose collective objections led to this corrective omission, an enormous debt of gratitude.

—Steven Harding

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

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