Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Finding Neverland

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

FINDING NEVERLAND

5/10

USA (US-UK) 2004 : Marc FORSTER : 102 mins

London, 1903. Scots Playwright J M Barrie (Johnny Depp) is in trouble both professionally and personally. His latest play has flopped, and his wife Mary (Radha Mitchell) is increasingly dissatisfied by their loveless marriage. Barrie finds solace in a friendship with widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four young sons, whose energetic company revives his flagging creative spirits. Barrie and the boys concoct imaginative games and spin fantastical yarns, and these form the basis for his most successful and enduring creation, Peter Pan. But tragedy is waiting in the wings…

Finding Neverland sees German-Swiss director Forster enter the movie-making mainstream after a trio of relatively edgy, independent dramas – the best known of which is the histrionic but Oscar-garlanded Monster’s Ball. Based on Allan Knee’s play The Man Who Was Peter Pan, this is a careful, middle-of-the-road, somewhat twee period piece which strenuously avoids exploring the more interesting aspects of Barrie’s story (most notably his marital problems) and instead takes the easier option of jerking the audience’s tears in a third act which sees Sylvia slowly succumb to tuberculosis.

The ever-hearty Winslet makes a rather unconvincing TB victim, however, especially alongside the fragile Mitchell (from Forster’s fine sophomore feature Everything Put Together) and the conspicuously sallow, underfed Depp. The flavour-of-the-month star is clearly angling for another Oscar nomination, but his Scots accent, while technically flawless, never quite manages to overcome scriptwriter David Magee’s sloppily anachronistic dialogue. Barrie’s first lines include the words ‘crap’ and ‘shite,’ and – despite evident effort having been expended on recreating Edwardian costumes and sets – few scenes have the ring of convincing historical accuracy that marked Mike Leigh’s superior Topsy-Turvy (which also featured a turn-of-the-century theatrical legend who escaped into fantasy to avoid dealing with a barren marriage.)

Finding Neverland aims to be much more of a general-audience crowdpleaser, of course, and on those terms it’s perfectly watchable: Dustin Hoffman is great value as sardonic American impresario Charles Frohman; young Luke Spill is irresistibly cute as the junior of the “lost” Llewelyn Davis boys; veteran Eileen Essel provides a touching cameo as an elderly widow. But how disappointing that a film which so strenuously celebrates the power of the imagination should expend so little of that valuable commodity on its own cinematography, editing, score, direction and writing.

17th October, 2004
[seen 9th October : Odeon, Nuneaton : press show – CinemaDays event]

by Neil Young


A reader writes – Linda Elizondo presents an alternative take on FINDING NEVERLAND.

It is easy to say what Finding Neverland is not. It is not a film that fits neatly into one of the usual genres. There’s not enough sticking-to-the-facts to call it a biopic, though much of it is based on historic fact. It is neither romantic nor comedic, though it does have its light moments, as well as wistful suggestions of romance. It is not a family film, because it touches on themes that young children would find disturbing. And it is certainly not a character study showing another gifted-but-troubled artist wrestling with his demons before creating his masterpiece. Yet it gives us an intimate glimpse into the inner workings of an artist’s mind, or rather, his imagination, as he creates his fantasy world. Because it is a movie so hard to categorize, it may have a difficult time reaching the audience it deserves as a beautiful, well-crafted and moving film. But if you are willing to suspend your belief that all movies must fit into a familiar niche, then you will find a real gem in this one.

Some critics have objected that the movie is too literal in showing us how Barrie was inspired to add this or that detail to his Neverland. But the movie is not meant to show us the sources of Neverland as much as to show us why Neverland existed in the first place. Barrie interjects himself into his own fantasy world a la Walter Mitty, but his reasons for retreating into it are very different, and the film very delicately explores those reasons.

Johnny Depp plays Barrie with an emphasis on his character rather than on the historic figure. He is perfectly cast as a man who is best defined by his Inner Child. As he often does, Depp took Barrie into a direction not foreseen by the director, Marc Forster, or the writers (Alan Knee, screenplay, and David McGee who adapted it for the screen). Depp finds a sad, lost boy in the body of a man who is terrible at being a grown-up. He tries hard to take on the trappings of adulthood, putting on the proper clothes, and nodding politely at social functions, but all the while squirming restlessly inside, like a little boy forced to behave in Church. During the course of the film we learn that when he was a young boy he had donned his dead brothers clothes and pretended to be him in order to please his grieving mother. That is when his real childhood ended, leaving the child that Barrie had been dwelling in the dreamworld that is to become Neverland. Now he must play at being a grownup. It is lovely irony that the only time Barrie can stop pretending is when he’s play-acting with the Llewellyn boys whom he befriends.

Those who think the film skirts the darker and more controversial aspects of Barrie’s life should know that there is plenty of speculation but no real evidence that Barrie’s obsession with children was of a sexual nature. The surviving Llewellyn boy, Nico, the youngest and the one left out of the movie, has stated that he “never heard one word or saw one glimmer of anything approaching homosexuality or pedophilia: Had he had either of these leanings in however slight a symptom I would have been aware.” He went on to call Barrie an innocent; that’s why he could write Peter Pan. Many people who have researched Barrie’s life, including Andrew Birkin, whose work James Barrie and the Lost Boys is often cited as the definitive biography, believe that it is a fitting tribute to Barrie to stick with the emotional truth rather than the literal truth, as Barrie himself did.

Far from being a Hollywood version of a troubled life, (I can’t help but think of A Beautiful Mind here) this movie is too ambiguous for mainstream Hollywood, ultimately leaving us with the dilemma that the man-child Barrie and the Child-man Peter find themselves in at the end of the movie. Its significant that it ends not with the fantastical vision of Neverland, but with Sylvias funeral, and Peter and Barrie consoling each other over their almost unbearable loss. They need Neverland in order to survive the harsh reality of losing Peters mother, but her death is inescapable. This scene is foreshadowed in an earlier scene from Barries play in which a frightened Peter Pan tries to convince himself and the audience that dying will be a great adventure. Their dream world gives them hope that they will be brave enough to face their tragedy.

Finding Neverland does not have the Oscar Film Clip scene needed to market Depp for a Best Oscar nomination. His performance, like the other elements of the movie, is so seamlessly and effortlessly interwoven with the rest of the movie that it may slight for the awards shows. However, last years surprise (to many) nomination of Depp for the Oscars, BAFTA, Golden Globe and SAG awards indicates that the people who nominate and vote for these awards are not always judging with the same narrow criteria that many critics use. It is high praise to say that Depps performance, while not a showy one, is an essential and defining element in the film, and if this movie is acknowledged with a Best Picture nomination, then it will be largely due to him.