By Kim Hollis
November 12, 2004
A joyous celebration of family, friendship and the creative process, Finding Neverland is a treasure of a film and one of the best of the year. Exemplary performances and exquisite storytelling blend perfectly in this tender examination of the writer behind Peter Pan, the tale of a boy who would never grow up.
The movie begins as the curtain is rising on a wildly anticipated J.M. Barrie play. The audience is all abuzz, and producer Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman) assures those attending that they're in for a treat. When the play begins, though, the crowd quickly turns against the Barrie, leaving the playwright to start the process all over again - hopefully with more success.
He lives in a lovely home with wife Mary (Radha Mitchell), though of course, as was likely more in keeping with the times, they had separate bedrooms. This divide is consistently felt as there is a coldness and distance between the pair that grows as the story progresses.
And so, Barrie journeys off to the nearby park in hopes of finding inspiration and solitude. Once there, he gets much more than he ever imagined as he encounters a boisterous family of boys and their mother. Before long, he has become fast friends with the Davies, and though his relationship with Sylvia, the mother, causes some wagging tongues, it is a gentle, platonic camaraderie. It is his friendship with the Davies boys - particularly Peter - that motivates him to create the magical world of Neverland and the wondrous characters that populate it.
After a marvelous 2003 in which he received accolades for his portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Johnny Depp has returned with a performance even more notable. His J.M. Barrie is infused with humanity and deep intelligence, and his interaction with the child actors in the film is faultless. He effortlessly affects a Scottish brogue, an accent that marks him as ever so slightly out of place amongst the more hoity-toity society that frequents his theatrical productions.
Standing out right alongside Depp is youngster Freddie Highmore, whose deeply sensitive and precocious Peter is the boy with whom Barrie develops the closest relationship. Watching the youngster perform alongside Depp is even more fascinating when keeping at the back of one's mind the fact that they will appear onscreen together again in 2005 as Highmore will portray Charlie Bucket to Depp's Willy Wonka in the re-imagining of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Kate Winslet plays Sylvia Davies, the mother of the boys, and she is ethereal and charming as always. A woman who lives in constant conflict with the impending impact of reality, she keeps one foot in the childlike happiness where her children reside even as she is fully aware of the tragic possibilities of life. Partially keeping her grounded is her mother, portrayed by the still-lovely Julie Christie. This character does undergo a shift in the film, and while many stories might have overdone it, in her case it is entirely believable.
Even as the film is firmly set in the "real world", it is still whimsical and full of fancy. At the moments when Barrie is interacting with the children, the audience is transported to an entirely different reality altogether. The same applies when Barrie's characters are recreating his work onstage. The director of the film, Marc Foster, has been able to seamlessly shift from the sometimes devastating events of everyday life to the capricious world that exists only in imagination. Cinematographer Roberto Schaefer's contribution is important as well; the film itself is framed differently depending whether events are taking place on stage, in regular life or in the make-believe world of a child - or childlike adult who refuses to grow up.
Much like Barrie's Peter Pan, the movie delivers impacting themes centering around faith and belief, the importance of imagination and the definition of family - whether it be direct blood relations or people who have influence that lasts a lifetime.
Full of emotion, Finding Neverland is a gorgeous film that will merit strong attention during the 2004 awards season. Depp is establishing himself as one of the preeminent performers in the business today, and while the film truly belongs to him for the most part, the entire crew has everything to do with the enduring impression the movie leaves.