Finding Neverland is not a kids’ movie, although kids certainly will enjoy it at their own level. It’s a film about the ability to see the world through the fresh, uninhibited imaginations of children and the way such insight can be both instructive and restorative to the more jaded adult viewpoint. The film is executed with literacy and charm, carefully sidestepping the pitfall of sticky sentimentality through understated writing, sensitive performances, and brilliantly imaginative direction.
J. M. Barrie (1869-1937) was a Scottish playwright whose often whimsical, humorous, and sometimes sentimental plays were hugely popular in his day. What Every Woman Knows, The Admirable Crichton, and Dear Brutus are still revived from time to time, but it is Peter Pan that towers above Barrie’s other work as a timeless classic. Finding Neverland traces Barrie’s personal experiences that led to the writing of Peter Pan. It makes a direct connection bewteen the joyful intoxication of childplay and the enchantment of the live theater.
Barrie (Johnny Depp), in a childless and unhappy marriage, befriends Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet), a widow and the mother of four young sons, spending so much time with them that he becomes almost a surrogate father to the boys. (Another result, mentioned briefly in the film, was gossip about his relationship with Davies as well as suspicions of pedophilia, none of which is justified by anything presented in the film.)
Barrie’s experience of sharing of games of make-believe with the boys is shown through his eyes, reality leading into his own theatrical images that begin to make up scenes of the gestating play. Director Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball) seamlessly slides back and forth between the reality of imagination and the imagination of reality, as if his camera were the very synapses of Barrie’s creativity.
Depp (Blow, Secret Window) has never been better, here with a light Scottish accent, acting without histrionics, but underplaying in a manner most appropriate to the gentle, sensitive and always gentlemanly Barrie. Winslet (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Quills), too, finds just the right touch as a down-to-earth mother, needy, but independent. In featured roles, Julie Christie (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Troy)) as Sylvia’s mother, gives the character unexpected dimension and Dustin Hoffman (I Heart Huckabees, Runaway Jury), in his best work in years, is perfectly droll as Barrie’s worried producer. Radha Mitchell (Man on Fire), as Barrie’s wife, is convincing, whether as a shameless social climber or in the genuine sadness of recognizing her marriage has failed. It seems almost unfair to single out any one of the boys, but Freddie Highmore, as Peter, displays an intelligence and emotional transparency that experienced actors twice his age would envy.
David Magee’s script, adapted from a play by Allan Knee, is a marvel of literate dialogue and skilled characterization, combining civilized restraint with the spontaneous joys of seeing the world freshly through the eyes of the young.