Approached as an old-fashioned biopic, Finding Neverland effectively applies dramatic license to the story of Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie's inspirations—both autobiographical and creative—for his initial theatrical presentation of the Peter Pan story. Director Marc Forster's follow-up to Monster's Ball casts a movie star in the role of Barrie, which should be the first clue of the filmmaker's attempts to make good drama but dubious history out of Barrie's life; eternal boy Johnny Depp plays Barrie, who was somewhat less good-looking, tall, and clean-shaven than depicted here.
Depp might have worked in a Danny Kaye-styled vehicle about Barrie's imagination, but Miramax's Oscar hopeful positions itself between fancy and tragedy without committing to a multifaceted examination of Barrie's psyche. Using Alan Knee's play The Man Who Was Peter Pan as a template, screenwriter David Magee and director Forster fictionalize Barrie's life to their convenience, acknowledge the hurt of broken relationships, and exalt the salvation of fantastic escape.
While puzzling over his next play, Barrie befriends widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her brood of four tow-headed children (the real Sylvia, whose husband lived until a few years after the theatrical debut of Peter Pan, had five sons). Barrie is smitten with Davies's life energy and those of her boys; over the following weeks, he takes to spinning tales of pirate adventure to entertain them and himself. Before you can say "Tinkerbell," Barrie begins work on the initial play version of Peter Pan, though his producer, Charles Frohman (played by Dustin Hoffman) and his cast of actors, give him looks of dismay at his apparently lunatic designs.
Magee's script spends most of its energy proving, rather obviously, that all fiction is autobiography. St. Bernard in tow, Barrie plays pirates with the boys. Watching the youngsters bounce on their beds, Barrie imagines them flying out their window (Barrie's remark "Young boys should never be sent to bed. They always wake up a day older" underscores how his art was wishful thinking). Barrie tells Peter (Freddie Highmore, the young talent rematched with Depp in the upcoming Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) that he must believe his brother Michael can run fast enough, or their kite will never take flight; soon thereafter, London theatregoers will be asked to believe in fairies if Tinkerbell is to live.
Critics will forgive just about any fiction in the name of ingenious storytelling and great acting, but Finding Neverland never quite takes flight; instead, Forster's film consistently reminded me of creatively superior fictionalized histories: Shadowlands, with its emotional romance, and Winslet's Beautiful Creatures, with its fantasy blooming out of pitch-black drama. The Dennis Potter-scripted Dreamchild challenged audiences by facing head-on the spectre of Lewis Carroll's discomfiting, though not necessarily sexual, love for Alice, but Forster contents himself with the broad strokes of Barrie's story, always flipping it sunny-side up; Barrie's probable desire for children gets only glancing reference. In the Davies family's untold epilogue, one lost boy presumably killed himself and another—the boy who was Peter Pan—did so decisively. Peter Davies threw himself in front of a London train at the age of 63, though no title card blots the fade-out's warm fuzzies.
Such comparisons probably aren't fair, but Finding Neverland unspools more like a missed opportunity, for a darker and more realistic approach to Barrie's penchant for fantasy, than a strong film in its own right. Depp, though miscast, is typically fine at emoting Barrie's affection for the Davies children, lovelessness for his wife (Radha Mitchell), and strident skill at accessing imagination. Winslet's part is too poorly written to serve her superior ability, while Julie Christie suffers the two-note role of Sylvia's disapproving, ice-queen mother.
The dramatic beats are worked over craftily: the good, the bad, and the tragic, not necessarily in that order. Forster toes the line of sentimentality for most of the picture without crossing it unduly. The inevitable confluence of Barrie's creation and a flock of orphans works exactly as it should, and the contrast of the Barrie kids—obligated to grow up too fast—to the fictional lost boys develops an admirably understated pathos. Finally, Finding Neverland is recommendable to audiences looking for a warm-hearted, tearjerking movie, but not terribly commendable for cineastes in search of a more sophisticated film.
[For Groucho's interview with Marc Forster, click here.]