Thursday, December 16, 2004
Marc Forster’s movie, Finding Neverland, about J.M. Barrie and the “lost boys” is glossy, floridly sentimental, yet daringly muted. As the playwright, Johnny Depp is at the opposite pole from his pirate mode. This guy makes Ed Wood look macho.
Depp’s still-childlike face and guileless eyes are perfect
for the part. Here, Barrie’s marriage is icy and spiky not
because he refuses to sleep with his wife, Mary, but because
she’s a cold social climber without a shred of sensitivity to
the wonderfully fanciful land he inhabits. Radha Mitchell does
what she can (not much) with this cardboard role. Depp tries
to ride his role on toward the Oscars, but it’s an intensely
FINDING NEVERLAND ( * * 1/2 )
Directed by Marc Forster
Starring Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, Kate Winslet, Radha Mitchell, Julie Christie
(Rated PG, 106 min.)
One day in 1903, Barrie flees the wife to take his enormous dog on a romp in Kensington Park. He meets cute with the Llewelyn Davieses, dancing with the dog and exhorting the kids to believe it’s a bear. He whips them up into fantasy games of pirates and Indians, incorporating bits of the boys’ real life. Their frosty, starchy grandma (a stunningly lovely, sharply effective Julie Christie) helps inspire Captain Hook. When Uncle Jimmy comes to dinner, he subversively encourages the kids to violate stuffed-shirt decorum, provoking illicit giggles.
But the most important Lost Boy, Peter (child-actor-to-watch Freddie Highmore), is a sourpuss who will have none of it. “You’re not our father!” he snaps. Actually, Peter’s dad was still alive, and rather alarmed, when Barrie crashed into his family like a comet, but the movie needs him dead so Barrie can comfort widowed Sylvia (Kate Winslet) and platonically woo Peter to relinquish the cold comfort of rationalism and defy gravity with him and the other, less difficult boys.
Forster also changes theatrical history, opening with Barrie sweating out the opening of a flop play, so he can redeem his reputation with the triumph of Peter Pan (which premiered in 1904). In fact, the previous play wasn’t a flop, but Forster succeeds in making Edwardian theater seem magical.
Finding Neverland runs into trouble when the boys’ mother, Sylvia, develops an ominous little cough. Winslet is, after Christie, the finest actor in the film, but Forster forbade her to milk Sylvia’s sickness unto death for big emotion. Her decline isn’t dramatic; she just meekly fades away—vanishes into her own growing halo. The movie’s big idea is that Barrie’s fantasy can comfort the kids for their lost dad and doomed mom.
OK, my eyes misted up. But the whole thing is too airless, the confrontations muffled. One problem is that when outraged relatives understandably demand to know what exactly the deal is between Barrie and Sylvia, the movie has no answers to offer. Sylvia doesn’t really have motives, just a decorous phlegm and pale complexion problem. Despite Depp’s talent and ambition, his Barrie is half cipher, half uplifting cliché. It’s hard to dramatize Edwardian repression.
Modern Hollywood finds it hard to admit the existence of tragedy; movies often blow it by trying to sentimentalize tough realities. You can sense the note of falseness, despite the most skillful of cinematic magic tricks. Perhaps to compensate for Barrie’s enigmatic core, Finding Neverland interestingly and movingly hints at the sad future fate of his Lost Boys (not shown in the film), but it’s too timid to follow up on those dark portents.
“To die would be an awfully big adventure,” says Peter Pan in Barrie’s play, but Forster’s adventure is too small, and not awful enough.