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.)
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.
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
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.
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 naïve demeanor
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.