Finding Neverland

written by Allan Knee and David Magee

directed by Marc Forster

starring Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet and Julie Christie


review by Stephen Notley

Do we find Neverland in Finding Neverland? We do, and as it is in Peter Pan it's a shifting no-place, delicate movements back and forth across the unknown boundary between child and adult, the sacrifices and opportunites of maturity.

Finding Neverland starts on a more adult footing than Peter Pan, with Johnny Depp as James Barrie in 1903 London watching his latest play flop hard. It's "bull's pizzle," as he himself says in his curly Scottish accent. His relationship with his wife is somewhat strained, strain that increases enormously once Barrie meets Kate Winslet with her four imaginative game-playing boys in the park and decides to start spending all of his time with them. He becomes the agent of the boys' childlike expression, joining in their games and pirate make-believe, spinning stories, writing it all down for this great new play he's going to do. But at the same time, with a dead father and a dying mother, these are children in desperate need of adulthood, and even as Depp invokes their childlike imagination he also helps them with the difficult transitions and truths of adulthood.

Johnny Depp is the reason a lot of people are going to see this movie, and he's good as he most always is, though unspectacular. In total contrast to Depp's Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean, it's a restrained performance this time around. Depp's Barrie enjoys or even prefers the company of children, but he's no elfin man-child. Even though he's the avatar and enabler of childlike expression, he's always solidly adult, grounded, serious, even. He never believes himself to be a little boy as he plays with the others; he always knows himself to be a grown-up man. It's just that his job is to write plays so he gets to play a bit more than most adults.

Directed by Marc Forster from a stage play, Finding Neverland takes an unusual approach to the fantastical. Barrie's imagination is hardwired to theatre, so when he dances with his shaggy St. Bernard in front of the boys, telling them he's dancing with a bear, he imagines himself dancing, not with a bear, but with a guy in a big bear costume on an impossibly splendid stage. When he plays pirate and walks the boys off the plank, it's an unreal boat-set with roiling wooden waves below. When he creates Neverland, it's a backyard strewn with misty extras. It's an interesting sideways step, not into the effervescent special effects of last year's Peter Pan, but into the creativity of a playwright.

Finding Neverland works best as kind of a mirror-image of Peter Pan. Where Peter Pan is grounded in the perspective of a child uneasily facing the tantalizing challenges of  maturity, Finding Neverland takes the view of an adult looking back, wistfully eulogizing the lost wisps of innocence, ruefully watching as children become grown-ups before his eyes. The kids who play the boys turn out to be ferociously honest little actors, particularly Freddie Highmore who plays Peter, desperately struggling with his grief over his father's death and his mother's illness, simultaneously needing and rejecting the make-believe of childhood and theatre.

Finding Neverland is a subtle film, an interesting counterpoint to last year's Peter Pan, and it's a tribute to the strength of the original play that the best moments of Finding Neverland are those that touch on it, from Barrie's first mused imagining of the boys drifting off their beds and out the window to the first performance of Peter Pan, in which Barrie has stocked the audience with children whose honest delight could puncture the unstated reserve of the seen-it-all professional-class theatregoing adults. As an alternate take on the themes of Peter Pan, Finding Neverland has something to say to anybody who's ever gotten older. Which, last time I checked, was everybody.