100 years ago, long before pop psychology discovered our annoying "Inner child", a man named James Barrie wrote the archetypal version of that theme, all about a boy who never grew up and a land where we stay young forever. Finding Neverland
is his story, although the film is less his biography than a tribute to that spirit of eternal youthfulness, and how that gift is given to a family Barrie befriends.
The eternally young Johnny Depp plays J.M. Barrie, a successful dramatist already in his 40's by the time he meets Sylvia Llewellyn Davies -- the eternally ethereal Kate Winslet -- who is a widowed mother to four young boys. Like missing pieces to a puzzle, Barrie and the Davies family fit each other's needs perfectly -- he bringing some magic along with a degree of fatherly protection to their lives, they becoming an audience and the ultimate inspiration for his.
The film is both a story of love and an intimate peek at a pivotal moment in literature. The love story part is touching and sweet, if unspectacular. The literary part, the birth of Peter Pan, is more interesting as we see how Barrie's world of neverending playtime helps four boys get past the death of their father, and also how his creativity brings a strikingly fresh voice to stuffy old England's theatrical society. By themselves, Barrie's eccentricities -- his childlike playfulness, his own sterile marriage, his odd emotional detachment from all around him -- would be frustrating character flaws were they not used as clues foreshadowing the famous play that immortalized him. In that sense, Finding Neverland
uses Peter Pan in the same way Titanic
used an iceberg: It's the film's big payoff. Anticipating the character's creation is the hook that overlays the rest of the story. We hear Winslet call one of her boys "Peter" and immediately think, "Ah-hah!"; we see Barrie imagining the four boys flying off their beds and think, "Hey, I recognize that!".
As the bond between Barrie and the boys becomes more clearly paternal, the relationship between him and Sylvia becomes even more purposefully vague, deeper on some levels and yet less adult on others. Their connection zigs but then refuses to zag. They both have unrealized needs, but it isn't great sex or true love that's coming to the rescue; it's more like a variation of "Don't Worry Be Happy". It's Peter Pan and Wendy all over again, just as soul-stirring a relationship but just as developmentally stunted. Nevertheless, James and Sylvia's connection counts as a love story, running as deep as any other romantic couple's, only in a different direction.
The fairy dust is layed on a little thick at times, but Finding Neverland
gets by on the charm of its two leads. Kate Winslet's Sylvia combines the best qualities of British women -- beauty and elegance, but with a casual charm that melts through the icy English permafrost. Johnny Depp's James Barrie is a charming enigma, sliding between being the nurturing father figure and being another one of Neverland's Lost Boys. (Come to think of it, Johnny Depp has made a career out of playing lost boys.) Here he straddles the pubescent fence, being warm and cool at the same time, never distant but never overtly affectionate. He plays Barrie as an emotionally muted man who spins magic around him from the safe distance of a consumate storyteller, which is by all accounts an accurate reflection of the real J.M. Barrie's personality.
But the best reason to watch the film is Freddy Highmore, the young actor who has the only role that really flies from here to there. Appropriately, his character's name is Peter. His relationship with Barrie is easily the film's most interesting, and it's his sincerity that carries the film's sentimental weight, as well as giving us a couple of good weepy moments. As for the characters that have managed to grow up, Julie Christie's face has remained beautiful, but she plays Sylvia's Mom with a demeanor that hints at Cinderella's wicked step-mother, and Dustin Hoffman's role as the nervous producer of Barrie's plays is, perhaps, the smallest and least significant of his career.
2004 seems to be the year of biographies, and if Ray, The Aviator, Alexander
are hard-hitting classics written on the roughest sandpaper, Finding Neverland
is the bedtime story you hear while wearing your softest flannel pyjamas.