Sunday, January 02, 2005

Finding Neverland

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 1 January 2005 at AMC Fenway #2 (first-run)

A couple seats down, a child was laughing. A few rows back, a woman was sobbing like I can't remember hearing at a movie in recent memory. Yeah, I figured, that's about right.

This is, after all, a movie about a man who, at least this once, was able to see the world as a child sees it, and created a story that could bridge the gap between adults and children. It would be easy to say that playwright J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) is the real Peter Pan, and not entirely inaccurate. That description sells Barrie short, though, as he is an adult who tries to act responsibly but makes mistakes. He does share the character's confidence.

Finding Neverland, as you may deduce, tracks the creation of Peter Pan, the play. As the film opens, we see his most recent creation, Little Mary, open disastrously (note that Barrie's wife is also named Mary; this is obvious but clever foreshadowing). However, the producer (Dustin Hoffman) has booked the theater and contracted the cast for an extended run, so when the Little Mary closes quickly, he needs a new play. As Barrie attempts to write one while walking his dog in the park, he meets the four Llewelyn-Davies children and their mother Sylvia (Kate Winslet). He's particularly concerned with Peter, an eight-year-old who has had the joy of childhood stolen from him by his father's recent death.

It is difficult to make a film about the creative process; in my experience, "the creative process" has two steps, neither terribly interesting to watch: First, you grab a pencil/keyboard/instrument and exercise your will; after that comes revision. The film gets around it by having Barrie play with the children and thus improvising his ideas. Through this process, we can see the elements that will become part of Peter Pan emerge - the pirates, the Indians, the children taking flight out a window, the concept of "lost boys". It is a great relief that writers Allan Knee (the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan) and David Magee (screenplay) never succumb to the cutesy ploy of having one of the children actually generate what is credited to Barrie; they merely serve as muses, children for him to observe and interact with. Their games are richly and fantastically detailed, all detailed but unrealistic stage costumes and wooden scenery - until some comment by Peter jolts them back to reality.

The cast is top-notch. Depp turns in yet another fine performance, not only managing a Scottish accent that sounds pretty good to my ears (said ears, admittedly, have never actually been to Scotland), but also capturing the whimsy and innocence that makes him believably not a threat to the children. It's especially impressive because director Marc Forster does give us brief glimpses of Barrie as something other than asexual, sharing moments with his wife that indicate that yes, there was physical attraction and passion there at one point, though they now sleep in separate bedrooms. Many of Depp's best scenes come opposite Freddie Highmore, the young actor playing Peter Llewelyn-Davies. Highmore gives a great performance, projecting more sadness and anger than should be able to come out of one so small. I was impressed by him in Five Children and It, and I see that Depp persuaded Tim Burton to cast him in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory's title role. At only twelve years old, he is staring to build an impressive career.

Speaking of an impressive career, Kate Winslet bookends 2004 with another great performance as the ailing Sylvia. It's not quite as impressive as how she started the year (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), but is equal parts joie de vivre and denial. Sylvia initially seems flighty and indulgent, especially for her time, but that is gradually revealed as conscious, borne of the desire to make what time she and her children have as happy as possible; because of this, she clashes with her domineering but pragmatic mother-in-law, played by Julie Christie.

The other woman in Barrie's life is his wife, Mary, played by Radha Mitchell. Someday, I'll come up with an explanation as to why her career hasn't taken off; she's talented and beautiful and made a strong impression in Pitch Black, but since then seems to get thankless wife roles in movies like Phone Booth and Man on Fire. Here, the role is at least a bit meatier, as the dissatisfied wife who understands her husband all too well. She could be made a villain, but isn't; her social ambitions just wind up being incompatible with Barrie's childlike outlook. Dustin Hoffman is a small gem in his role as the producer who commiserates with Barrie on how critics take the theater too seriously, but still focuses on the dollars-and-cents aspect. Another adult friend of Barrie's is played by Ian Hart. Amusingly, I didn't realize he was playing Arthur Conan Doyle until looking the movie up on the IMDB. I now know that in addition to writing mysteries, historical romances, and science fiction, training as a medical doctor, and feuding with Harry Houdini on matters paranormal, Doyle was also an avid and skilled cricketer.

A quick internet search will also show the liberties this movie takes with real life - there were five Davies boys, for instance, and their father was a long-time friend of Barrie's who was still alive during the summer of 1903. Mary Ansell Barrie left her husband several years after Peter Pan was first staged, though the movie suggests a different timeline. These changes take Finding Neverland out of the category of biography and into that of fiction, and while none may be necessary, the end result is very strong as drama. Very strong.

Finding Neverland is a tear-jerker without question, but even as it deals with marriages failing and parents dying, it also highlights the human drive to create, to create something immortal and glorious from that which is real and sad. It is also very even-handed; even though Barrie often takes "silly" as a compliment, and Depp makes him young-at-heart, the movie is never juvenile.

So, maybe childish, but in a good way. Perhaps the greatest wisdom an adult can have is knowing when and how to look at the world as a child does.

1 comment:

sanchapanzo said...

Good review!
'Arthur Conon Doyle' in Finding Neverland is the best part(read observation) of the entire review.

my review of finding neverland