FINDING NEVERLAND (2004)
Director: Marc Forster
Cast: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Radha Mitchell, Julie Christie, Freddie Highmore, Dustin Hoffman, Joe Prospero, Ian Hart, Kelly Macdonald
Screenplay: David Magee; from Allan Knee's play The Man Who Was Peter Pan
Back in 2001, German-born director Marc Forster brought a much welcome touch of non-Hollywood flavor to the independently made psychological drama Monster's Ball. Besides the daring (if way overlong) sex scenes, that film imparted a refreshingly realistic atmosphere that was much enhanced by Forster's minimalist touch.
As the title implies, Forster's Finding Neverland, adapted by David Magee from Allan Knee's play The Man Who Was Peter Pan, has absolutely nothing to do with reality, whether James M. Barrie's or anyone else's. Still, Forster's subtle, no-nonsense touch is sorely missing from what is little more than your average big-studio holiday movie whose so-called magical moments might as well have been created by a computer.
The Finding Neverland basic plot goes as follows:
Following the cool reception accorded his latest play, quirky author James M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) meets four young boys whose father, Llewelyn Davies, has recently passed away. Since Barrie often escapes into a fantasy world to avoid dealing with the harsh realities of adult life, he finds much in common with the four kids. Less a father figure than the boys' partner in crime, Barrie starts visiting the Llewelyn Davies home with increasing frequency. While he plays with the boys, the young widow Sylvia Davies (Kate Winslet) watches over them.
All seems to be going well, except for the fact that Barrie is a married man. Feeling rejected, his wife, Mary Ansell (Radha Mitchell), starts going out on her own. Further complicating matters, Sylvia's stern mother, Emma du Maurier (Julie Christie), doesn't approve of the deepening friendship between her daughter and the playwright.
Barrie, however, must keep seeing that family, for they have become the inspiration for his next play, Peter Pan. Additionally, the boys need some sort of a male role model as Sylvia's health has begun to deteriorate.
True enough, the Finding Neverland storyline has several elements in common with reality, e.g., the characters' names and the fact that they all speak English. I'm assuming that was a mere coincidence.
Elsewhere, Finding Neverland follows its own never-never path. Johnny Depp, for one, looks as much like James M. Barrie as Julia Roberts looks like Nosferatu's Max Schreck. And it doesn't stop there. Depp's Barrie is thoroughly desexualized so 21st-century audiences won't even think of questioning his strong interest in the four boys, particularly Peter. (According to some sources, reality was considerably more complex.)
But of course, this is a movie. It's all make-believe. Yet, for make-believe to be believable, it must be genuine. Throughout most of Finding Neverland, however, I could sense studio executives, screenwriters, and others involved in the creation of this froth doing their best to ensure that everything looked and sounded as inoffensive and harmless as possible. Even death itself.
At the core of the film, Depp's performance suffers tremendously as a result of all that whitewashing, for his Barrie has as much depth as a water puddle. Admittedly, Finding Neverland does look great thanks to the talents of cinematographer Roberto Schaefer, production designer Gemma Jackson, and other behind-the-scenes personnel, but what saves this period melodrama from the infernal pit of mushiness is a trio of excellent actresses: Kate Winslet, Radha Mitchell, and veteran Julie Christie (above), all of whom bring a much needed sense of honesty and real feeling to the otherwise sugary proceedings.
Note: A version of this Finding Neverland review was initially posted in January 2005.