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Finding Neverland ****
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Rossiter Drake*

Depp dreams up Peter Pan in Finding Neverland.

(Courtesy of SFStation.com)

Starring: Johnny Depp, Kate WInslet, Julie Christie, Radha Mitchell, Dustin Hoffman. Rated PG.

Johnny Depp is one of the finest actors in movies today, not simply because of his ability to infuse the most enigmatic of characters with warmth, depth and understated vulnerability, but because he never shies away from a challenging role, whether he’s a conflicted FBI agent in Donnie Brasco or a shy, cerebral accountant in Dead Man. In the superb Finding Neverland, he plays J.M. Barrie, the Peter Pan author whose personal exploits in some sense resembled those of his most famous character.

Barrie, a celebrated Scottish playwright before earning artistic immortality with Pan, is privy to all the perks of fame and achievement -- wealth, a trophy wife, cricket matches with Arthur Conan Doyle -- but content with none of them, eschewing the stuffiness of high British society for jaunts in the park with his oversized St. Bernard. It is there that he meets the Llewelyn Davies, a family of four young boys and their sickly, widowed mother, Sylvia (Kate Winslet). (Curiously, the fifth of these real-life siblings, Nico, didn’t make the cut.)

Finding Neverland is the story of Barrie’s relationship with the Llewelyn Davies, a relationship that will provide the childlike author with an outlet for his playful, paternal instincts and the inspiration for his greatest work. It also leads to the abrupt end of his marriage to Mary (Radha Mitchell), a distant but not unsympathetic woman who has no real connection with her absentee husband. Barrie accepts the tradeoff with little hesitation.

In Sylvia’s four boys, Michael (Luke Spill), Jack (Joe Prospero), George (Nick Roud) and Peter (Freddie Highmore, who will co-star with Depp in the upcoming Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), Barrie finds grieving souls whose father’s untimely death has robbed them, to varying degrees, of their youthful exuberance. Peter, by far the most sullen of the lot, becomes the namesake for his newest play, about children who never want to grow up. Barrie takes the boys under his wing, acting as both playmate and parent, and provides the overwhelmed Sylvia with a much-needed male presence in the household. All the while, he, like a real-life Peter Pan, encourages his young charges to resist the dreariness of adulthood, to embrace the innocent joys of life as long as they possibly can.

By all accounts, the real J.M. Barrie was a more complicated, conflicted character than the magnanimous saint depicted here, though Allan Knee’s script hints at the modest public scandal caused by the author’s fondness for the Llewelyn Davies boys. (It does suggest, however, that Barrie was not the Michael Jackson of his day, even if he, like the beleaguered pop star, sought refuge in Neverland.) Regardless, the movie’s rose-tinted approach to its subject is no drawback.

If anything, Finding Neverland is a thrilling, sometimes magical experience, much like Peter Pan. And that’s the point. Barrie is not such an escapist that he uses his colorful imagination to shield himself entirely from reality -- this isn’t Walter Mitty, after all. He does, however, use that fertile wit to temper the pains of death and abandonment, and his noble, almost willfully nave demeanor is irresistible.

Depp, whose Scottish accent is strong, inhabits the role with tasteful restraint, resisting the urge to ham it up as the playful playwright. (Imagining this material in the hands of an actor like Robin Williams is frightful.) Elsewhere, Winslet and the young, quietly effective Highmore shine as Barrie’s indispensable muses, as does Dustin Hoffman, who rarely fails to elicit a laugh as an impatient producer in dire need of a hit.

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