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FINDING NEVERLAND (director: Marc Forster; screenwriters: from the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee/David Magee; cinematographer: Roberto Schaefer; editor: Matt Chessé; music: Jan A.P. Kaczmarek; cast: Johnny Depp (Sir James Matthew Barrie), Kate Winslet (Sylvia Llewelyn Davies), Julie Christie (Mrs. Emma du Maurier), Radha Mitchell (Mary Ansell Barrie), Dustin Hoffman (Charles Frohman), Kelly MacDonald (“Peter Pan”), Freddie Highmore (Peter Llewelyn Davies), Joe Prospero (Jack Llewelyn Davies), Nick Roud (George Llewelyn Davies), Luke Spill (Michael Llewelyn Davies), Ian Hart (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), Eileen Essel (Mrs. Snow), Jimmy Gardner (Mr. Snow), Mackenzie Crook (Usher), Laura Duguid (theater-goer, J.M. Barrie’s reallife god-daughter); Runtime: 106; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Nellie Bellflower/Richard N. Gladstein; Miramax; 2004-USA/UK)
“If you check out the real bio on Barrie you will wonder what this film was all about.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The thirtysomething Swiss-born and NYU film school graduate director Marc Forster’s (“Monster’s Ball”) “Finding Neverland” is the subdued fictionalized biopic of the eccentric but successful Scottish-born playwright James Barrie (Johnny Depp). The knighted author (1860-1937) became honored for creating the immortal childhood fantasy of Peter Pan that has become part of the modern world’s cultural and psychological heritage.

The film is set during Edwardian times in London, mingling reality with fantasy in a somewhat leaden manner. It is adapted by screenwriter David Magee from the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee; the crowd-pleasing, tear-jerking screenplay, a maudlin ode to innocence, is about an adult who never wants to grow up and is a believer in the magical world of the imagination. For a story that worships at the feet of the imagination, this one seems rather unimaginative and doesn’t even seem to understand the children it pretends to understand.

The film opens to a 1903 theater production of Barrie’s that flops, losing his wealthy loyal and witty American producer (Dustin Hoffman) a bundle. Barrie’s marriage to his bored pretty social-conscious former actress wife Mary (Radha Mitchell) is portrayed as a loveless one and on the rocks, leaving him alone in the spacious museum-like house with plenty of time to write and think. While walking his St. Bernard in Kensington Gardens, Barrie encounters the four game playing rambunctious boys (in reality there were five) of the recently widowed Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) — George, Peter (Freddie Highmore), Jack and Michael. They are all apple-cheeked and cutely dressed in matching boys’ outfits. He joins them in their game, catching the necessary childish spirit to endear himself to them. The boys’ father died from cancer of the jaw (in reality he was alive at the time Barrie met the boys), and the saintly mom is left without great wealth, a stern and bossy aristocratic mother, Emma du Maurier (Julie Christie), and a terrible cough from a chest cold that turns out to be more grave than first thought. Barrie quickly bonds with the boys to become their surrogate father and forms a caring platonic relationship with mom–though looking with inviting eyes at the attractive lady’s almost revealing cleavage. They meet every day, despite gossip from friends and the boys’ disapproving granny about how bad it looks, and frolic playing games as pirates, castles and kings, and cowboys and Indians. At one time he’s in their bedroom witnessing a pillow fight, when the playwright imagines the boys flying out the window. Barrie takes a special interest in comforting Peter, who vocally resents Barrie’s intrusion and is still grieving his father’s death–more affected than the other boys.

Peter Pan is performed in 1904 to great applause before an audience of swells interspersed with a handful of orphans given passes by the author. Barrie has written his greatest play thanks to being inspired by the boys, and leaves us with the lesson about what it means to really believe. At the reception following “Peter Pan’s” premiere, a theater-goer (Laura Duguid, Barrie’s real-life god-daughter) suggests that young Peter must be the real “Peter Pan,” only to have Peter point to Barrie and reply: “But I’m not Peter Pan, he is.”

The film plays as a tribute to Barrie’s genius, kindness, insecurities, fortitude, sexual passivity and playful nature. All of which may be perfectly true but, nevertheless, failed to convince me I saw anything more than a pleasant film that was performed in a satisfactory way without arousing me–pretty much like the dull relationship built around the unspoken love between substitute wife Kate and substitute father Depp. It’s steeped knee-deep in sentimentality involving illness, death, and noble love, leaving any dark undertow for another biopic. Some may be honestly moved by such piled-on sentimentality, but I wasn’t. I found instead a story that claims to be inspired by true events but nevertheless takes too many liberties with the truth that in the end causes this manipulative film to be suffocated. Neverland becomes more like a Disney theme park project fit for those who like their films safe and uninvolving, and who don’t want the truth to spill out any darkness over their harmless fantasies and get them all disturbed. Forster makes this a lush costume period production, whereby things are kept bland and the imagination muzzled. It’s all so banal and so unbelievable; if you check out the real bio on Barrie you will wonder what this film was all about (Two of the Davies boys died as young adults, and that Peter himself——the model for Peter Pan, who never enjoyed the company of Barrie——threw himself under a train at the age of 63). There’s a story there for a filmmaker looking to make a truthful film and who is not concerned about Oscars or box-office.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”