'Finding Neverland' movie review: Losing reality
Back in 2001, German-born director Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace, World War Z) brought a much welcome non-Hollywood touch 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 approach. As the title implies, his follow-up effort, Finding Neverland (2004), has absolutely nothing to do with reality, whether Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie's or anyone else's. Even so, Forster's early, no-nonsense directorial touch is sorely missing from what is little more than your usual big-studio holiday movie whose “magical moments” might as well have been created by a computer.
'Finding Neverland' plot: James M. Barrie as surrogate dad
Adapted by David Magee (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Life of Pi) from Allan Knee's play The Man Who Was Peter Pan, Finding Neverland's bowdlerized plot goes as follows:
In the aftermath of the cool reception accorded his latest play, quirky author James M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) meets four young boys whose father, Arthur 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, young widow Sylvia (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, Mrs. 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 kind of a male role model as Sylvia's health has begun to deteriorate.
Any similarity to persons living or dead is purely coincidental
Admittedly, the Finding Neverland storyline has several elements in common with reality, e.g., the characters' names and the fact that they all speak English. Similarities to the facts just about end there, as Finding Neverland follows its own never-never, crowd-pleasing path.
Johnny Depp, fresh off of a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for the blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, looks as much like James M. Barrie as Julia Roberts or Jennifer Lawrence looks like Nosferatu's Max Schreck – who, incidentally, would have been an infinitely more appropriate Barrie. And it doesn't stop there.
Depp's Barrie is thoroughly desexualized so 21st-century audiences wouldn't even dream of questioning his strong interest in the four boys, particularly Peter. Finding Neverland is that Disneyfied – especially when one takes into account that reality was considerably more complex.
But it's only a movie!
But of course, Finding Neverland is only a movie. It's all make-believe. Why be so picky about the facts having been so meticulously, calculatedly, shamelessly distorted, whitewashed, and/or disregarded?
Well, as far as I'm concerned, for make-believe to be believable it must feel genuine. However, throughout most of Finding Neverland, I found it impossible not to sense, just out of camera range, the presence of studio executives, producers, screenwriters, and others involved in the creation of this froth doing their best to ensure that everything looked and sounded as “innocent” and “hopeful” as possible. Even death itself.
Johnny Depp sinks; trio of actresses swim
At the film's core, Johnny Depp's performance suffers tremendously as a result of all that careful laundering, for his James M. Barrie has as much depth as a water puddle. A shame, as Depp was at his best playing another quirkily creative real-life figure, the titular character in Tim Burton's enjoyable 1993 fantasy movie Ed Wood (about the grade-Z auteur whose credits include Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 from Outer Space).
On the positive side, Finding Neverland does look great thanks to cinematographer Roberto Schaefer, production designer Gemma Jackson, and other behind-the-scenes personnel. But what saves this period melodrama from hell's pit of mushiness is a trio of outstanding actresses: Kate Winslet, Radha Mitchell, and veteran Julie Christie, all of whom bring a much needed sense of honesty and authentic emotion to the otherwise candied proceedings.
As an aside: Johnny Depp was bypassed for Ed Wood, but received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Finding Neverland. Kate Winslet, Radha Mitchell, and Julie Christie were all bypassed in the Best Supporting Actress category, though Winslet was shortlisted that year, as Best Actress, for Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Finding Neverland (2004)
Dir.: Marc Forster.
Scr.: David Magee.
From Allan Knee's play The Man Who Was Peter Pan.
Cast: Johnny Depp. Kate Winslet. Radha Mitchell. Julie Christie. Freddie Highmore. Dustin Hoffman. Joe Prospero. Nick Roud.
Luke Spill. Ian Hart. Kelly Macdonald. Mackenzie Crook. Eileen Essell. Jimmy Gardner. Angus Barnett. Toby Jones. Kate Maberly.
Finding Neverland cast info via the IMDb.
Images of Freddie Highmore, Joe Prospero, Nick Roud, Luke Spill, Julie Christie, Kate Winslet, and Johnny Depp in Finding Neverland: Miramax / The Walt Disney Company.