November 2004
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Depp, Forster and Co. Fly in ‘Finding Neverland’

by Chris Bellamy

Finding Neverland"
Miramax Films
Directed by Marc Forster
Screenplay by David Magee, based on the play, "The Man Who Was Peter Pan," by Allan Knee
Produced by Richard N. Gladstein and Nellie Bellflower
Starring Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Radha Mitchell, Dustin Hoffman, Julie Christie, Freddie Highmore, Nick Roud, Joe Prospero and Kelly Macdonald
Rated PG

(out of four)

Ten years ago, he was Ed Wood. He’s been Donnie Brasco, Ichabod Crane, and Hunter S. Thompson’s alter ago, Raoul Duke. Outstanding performances all, and finally over these last two years, Johnny Depp is receiving the praise and fame that have been due for more than a decade. Last year, he received his first Oscar nomination for his wonderfully eccentric Captain Jack Sparrow in "Pirates of the Caribbean," and this year he will be an Oscar contender once again, this time for his portrayal of "Peter Pan" scribe J.M. Barrie in Marc Forster’s "Finding Neverland."

(Originally slated for release last year, "Finding Neverland" was completed in the summer of 2003, but put off for a year so that it wouldn’t interfere with P.J. Hogan’s live-action "Peter Pan," released last Christmas.)

As the film opens, things aren’t going so well for Barrie. His latest play was a massive flop. His marriage is failing (he and his wife sleep in separate rooms), though neither party can quite come out and admit it. Barrie and his wife, Mary (Radha Mitchell) want very different things – he is consumed with his work; she wants lavish dinner parties and rich, famous "social contacts." And she may (or may not) be having an affair.

Barrie happens upon inspiration at the park, where he meets a widow, Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet), and her four sons. He and the Davies family quickly strike up a close relationship, and the wheels start turning inside Barrie’s head as he begins to pen "Peter Pan" based on the Davies boys—one of whom, Peter, stands out in particular. Barrie likes to tell the boys stories, and more often than not, they dress up in costume and act them out together. In many of the imaginative stories they act out, we see the first of what will become staples in "Peter Pan"—pirates, Indians, fairies, etc.

Unlike the three other boys, Peter (Freddie Highmore) doesn’t seem all that interested in Barrie’s stories, or in Barrie himself. Peter is sullen and withdrawn, angry at adults for the death of his father (he says they lied to him about the seriousness of his father’s illness), and feels that Barrie is trying to take over as the family’s father figure. Llewelyn—who is battling health problems of her own that she refuses to fully acknowledge—assures Peter that Barrie is doing no such thing, and she welcomes him with open arms.

Complicating manners is Llewelyn’s uppity mother, Mrs. Emma du Maurier (Julie Christie), who similarly disapproves of Barrie’s relationship with the family.

Naturally, Barrie’s regular visits to the Davies home become the subject of local gossip. People wonder what a married man could possibly want, spending so much time with a widow, not to mention the four young boys. As they take in a cricket match one day, one of Barrie’s friends points out that no one is sitting anywhere near the Davies family.

But Depp’s typically strong performance keeps such unspoken possibilities from becoming a distraction. We know that this man is a genuinely caring person who has finally found a bit of happiness with this family. While society may have its questions and misconceptions about Barrie’s character, the audience never does.

Surprisingly and refreshingly, the relationship between Barrie and Llewelyn doesn’t proceed the way most would naturally expect. In fact, while there is a definite chemistry between the two, and while his struggling marriage and wife’s possible infidelity certainly open up a lot of possibilities, the romance angle never materializes at all. The film keeps its focus on the story we really care about, rather than stuffing it with an obligatory romance.

Winslet, like Depp, is as reliable as ever, as are Julie Christie and Dustin Hoffman (as Barrie’s producer). But the real story is Highmore, who as Peter provides the film’s emotional core. Even in the most emotionally difficult scenes, his performance is strong. After seeing him in the film, I was thrilled to discover that Depp is re-teaming with Highmore, who will play the title role in Tim Burton’s remake of Roald Dahl’s "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," due out next summer.

Depp proves once again that he’s one of the most versatile—and most undervalued—actors of the last 15 years. But it’s not just Depp’s versatility on display here—it’s the director’s as well. Forster’s previous feature was the dark, gritty and highly sexual “Monster’s Ball,” and he’s followed that up with a PG-rated family film. He hits just about all the right notes. He blends a period-piece framework with imaginative fantasy sequences and a lot of nicely done humor, and what results is a film that, like "Monster’s Ball," is loaded with emotional resonance. Sure, "Finding Neverland" follows a family-movie formula, and the filmmakers definitely cheat a bit with a couple of characters and a few individual scenes. But in a film so consistently likable, it’s hard to complain about such faults.

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