movie film review | chris tookey

Finding Neverland

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  Finding Neverland Review
Tookey's Rating
10 /10
Average Rating
6.85 /10
Johnny Depp , Kate Winslet , Radha Mitchell
Full Cast >

Directed by: Marc Forster
Written by: David Magee based on Alan Knee’s play The Man Who Was Peter Pan

Released: 2004
Genre: DRAMA
Origin: UK
Length: 101

Middle-aged playwright in unhappy marriage develops healthy interest in small boys wearing knickerbockers, and enormously enriches his fantasy life.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Finding Neverland is literally a wonderful film. It’s full of wonders we too often take for granted. It celebrates imagination, creativity, family life in general and fatherhood in particular. Without pompous moralising or cheap mawkishness, it reminds us of how life inspires art, and art gives meaning to life.

It’s the deceptively simple story of how the successful but childless playwright Sir James Barrie (Johnny Depp, pictured left) was rescued from a low ebb in both his career and his marriage to a beautiful would-be socialite – exquisitely played by Radha Mitchell with an elegance that explains why Barrie married her, and an icy self-righteousness which shows why he must have wished he hadn’t.

Barrie found a kind of deliverance from his lonely marriage in four boys (there were five in real life) and their recently widowed mother, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet), whom he met by chance in Kensington Gardens. They transformed both his private life and his career, for Barrie’s games with them provided the inspiration for his greatest artistic triumph, Peter Pan.

Screenwriter David Magee can be faulted for the odd verbal anachronism (no Edwardian would ever have called a theatre interval “the intermission”), but his screenplay – based on Alan Knee’s play The Man Who Was Peter Pan - is in all other respects remarkable, teasing out the themes from Barrie’s life that influenced the creation of Peter Pan, without this ever seeming an academic exercise. Every scene is sensitively crafted, and the film never feels wordy or constricted, unlike so many adaptations of stage plays.

Director Marc Forster (who previously gave us Monster’s Ball, the film that earned Halle Berry an Oscar) does a superb job of visualising Barrie’s fantasies. One of the most touching moments comes when Barrie and his wife retire to their separate bedrooms, and we see through Barrie’s half-open door a glimpse of an imaginary landscape beyond, where his wife has only wallpaper.

The backstage sequences have the same love of theatre and its eccentricities that made Shakespeare in Love so magical. Angus Barnett is splendidly lugubrious as an actor lumbered with the task of playing Nana the dog, and Paul Whitehouse shines in his brief cameo as a harassed stage manager trying to master the rudiments of stage flying.

Finding Neverland is the kind of film that rightly attracts Oscars, not least because it’s marvellously acted throughout. Dustin Hoffman offers first-rate support as Barrie’s long-suffering producer, driven to distraction by the obviously suicidal notion of putting a children’s fantasy in front of curmudgeonly theatre critics. Julie Christie also contributes her best work in decades as the boys’ severe matriarch of a grandmother, suspicious of Barrie’s motives in attempting to become one of her family.

I suspect an Oscar nomination at least is in store for Kate Winslet, who is excellent as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, attempting to shield her children from the pain of losing their father, and then trying not to acknowledge that she herself is seriously ill. This is a role that could easily have been over-played; but Winslet approaches it without histrionics and with a matter-of-factness that makes it all the more affecting.

Freddie Highmore (pictured right) is sensational as Peter Llewelyn Davies, who was not only the inspiration for Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn’t grow up, but also that character’s antithesis (because of his father’s death, he had grown up more than a child of his age should have had to). Many of the laughs in the film emanate from his also being Barrie’s harshest critic. This is, in its way, as amazing a child-acting performance as the one that earned Haley Joel Osment an Oscar nomination for The Sixth Sense.

As for Johnny Depp, I fancy that Neverland may win him the Best Actor Oscar that he has deserved for so long. It makes great use of his innocent, childlike quality, previously seen to miraculous effect in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood. Depp’s Scottish accent never slips, and he uses it brilliantly to establish his curious status in London society – as an established theatrical figure, but also an outsider, and a man who had never lost the accent or enthusiasms of his youth.

Depp’s ability to be both subtle and flamboyant is as evident here as in his Oscar-nominated turn in Pirates of the Caribbean, which he shot after Finding Neverland, the release of which was delayed in order not to clash with last Christmas’s release of Peter Pan. It also neatly avoided the near-certain fate of losing out at last year’s Academy Awards to The Return of the King.

The story has been written and filmed before, in Andrew Birkin’s memorable 3-part TV series The Lost Boys, in which Ian Holm played Barrie as a closet paedophile. That interpretation, because it was darker, will be held in some quarters to be more “realistic” than the new one. But, in fact, there is no evidence to suggest that Barrie had sexual yearnings for the Llewelyn Davies boys.

The new film makes tasteful reference to those rumours, both through Julie Christie’s suspicious grandma and through an exchange between Barrie and his friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Ian Hart), in which Barrie is warned of what others are saying about him, but the film takes Barrie’s interest in the boys as essentially paternal – rightly, in my view. Anyone who has done as I have and read all of Barrie’s plays is bound to be struck by their extraordinary innocence, rather than anything remotely sinister.

Of the two versions, The Lost Boys – fine achievement though it was - is the more guilty of seeing the past through the distorting lens of the present. None of the boys themselves ever suggested any element of impropriety, and the new film argues persuasively that Barrie saw in the boys the children that he had never had, and in Sylvia Llewelyn Davies the good mother that he had failed to marry.

Finding Neverland is a film that explores some harsh realities of disease and death (the Neverland of the title is both the realm of the imagination and the very different “awfully big adventure” of death) but it does so in a way that entrances and uplifts.

There aren’t many films nowadays that you could enjoy with a fidgety five year-old or your 90 year-old maiden aunt; this is one of them. Under no circumstances should you miss Finding Neverland for it’s one of the great emotional experiences of our time. But be warned: take handkerchiefs.

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