Finding Neverland

Reviewed By MP Bartley
Posted 11/03/04 04:06:04

5 stars (Awesome)

When telling the story behind the boy who never grew up, could there be a better choice than Johnny Depp? Depp attacks every role with a childlike glee, from pirates to gangsters, and his best roles are the ones where he finds a childlike innocence in the characters, like 'Ed Wood' or 'Edward Scissorhands'. 'Finding Neverland' instantly jumps to the top of the list of great Depp performances. And Depp's performance is just one reason why 'Finding Neverland' is one of the most charming, lump-in-the-throat experiences we'll have this year.

Depp is James Barrie in early 20th century London, when he was a struggling playwright and was yet to unleash 'Peter Pan' upon the world. Instead he's in a run of bad plays which is starting to try the patience of his friend and theatre owner Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman - and how glad he must be to be finally associated with a great Peter Pan film). Barrie's struggle and flights of imagination are also starting to drive a wedge between him and his icy, social climbing wife, Mary (Radha Mitchell). This wedge is intensified when he encounters the Llewelyn-Davies family of young mother Sylvia (Kate Winslet) and her four boys, Michael, Jack, George and Peter (Freddie Highmore).

The family is mourning the loss of their husband and father and Sylvia's mother, Mrs. du Maurier (Julie Christie) is exerting a stern influence over the children. Barrie however is taken with the boys natural exuberance and their willingness to participate in his imaginative games of cowboys and pirates, and they in turn start to form a story in his mind of a boy who never grew up. It's the introspective Peter that chimes with Barrie the most as he's the one that seems to have taken his fathers death the worst, and as Barrie confides to Sylvia, "is trying to grow up too fast". Barrie is also unaware of just what his wife and society are making of his relationship with a widow and four young boys.

The omens for 'Finding Neverland' were not good, considering that 'Monster's Ball' director Marc Forster was behind the camera. Despite an Oscar for Halle Berry, that film was false and patronising with not a single honest emotion to its credit. Happily however, Forster seems to have learned his lesson, as 'Finding Neverland' is a mature piece of work that earns its emotional response, whilst filled with and revelling in the energy and imagination of childhood.

Gone is Forster's previously sterile and aloof direction, and replacing it is a fanciful, yet never silly, style that perfectly illustrates how Barrie let the real world feed his imagination and vice versa. Barrie finds inspiration in the smallest of things (a flickering light becomes Tinkerbell, a prodded finger a captain's hook) and the film truly soars when suburban and homely settings spring into life as a pirate ship in a stop-motion sea, or Barrie opens his bedroom door which leads into Neverland itself. But it never becomes cloying or sickly, as the fantasy sequences are always superbly contrasted to the melancholy of real-life. This dazzling use of imagination is also steeped in good humour as the ever-disbelieving Frohman watches rehearsals with a fake dog who has no teeth.

And a cast just delight in engaging with this two-pronged approach of fantasy against sobering reality. Hoffman grumbles his way splendidly through the theatre owner on the verge of ruin because of Barrie, and Mitchell and Christie are a fine pair of villains (although the film is mature enough not to just paint them as black and white - they each have a revealing moment which shows they're human too). Winslet is as good as ever as the mother struggling to hold a family of four young boys together, but the talk (including Oscar talk if there's any justice) will quite rightly belong to the two male leads.

Move over Osment and forget about Daniel 'Harry Potter' Radcliffe, because a new kid (literally) is in town, and damnit if he isn't the most affecting child actor in years. And that's 'affecting', not 'annoying' or 'maudlin'. No, Freddie Highmore gives an astonishing performance light years behind his age which just oozes maturity. He avoids the usual pitfalls of child actors his age and is wounded, hurting and doesn't want to give in to his natural childish dreams because real life just comes along and stomps all over them. It's a terrific portrayal of a confused little boy who is given hope by a stranger, and will work your tear ducts more than once.

And what can you say about Depp? It's becoming almost pointless to praise him, because he nails every part he does. You could put him in 'Van Helsing 2' and you'd happily watch it. And when armed with such a charming, heartfelt script like here, he withdraws, never shows off and just basks in the sheer class that he radiates. His Scottish accent is faultless, and he perfectly illustrates Barrie's blend of childishness, imagination and sense of affection for the young boys. But the fact that he's a lax husband, and too immature for a settled life isn't ducked at all.

The film also navigates the potentially thorny subject of a grown man befriending four young boys. It's addressed head on and dismissed with disgust by Depp, and the film never feels icky or uncomfortable with this subject matter, it just feels heart-warming (and I use this word as a massive compliment) and truthful.

Because 'Finding Neverland' is unashamedly sentimental and wears its heart on its sleeve, to tear-jerking effect. Yep, this is a film I would advise taking a hanky or three to. But it's never maudlin or manipulative, it's honest and mature. Hats off to Forster, for learning his lessons from 'Monster's Ball'.

It's been a long time that something as affecting and heart-warming yet melancholic has been wrapped up into one package as effectively as 'Finding Neverland' does. Last year's 'In America' pushed a lot of the same buttons but ultimately suffered because of a cop-out ending, that 'Finding Neverland' refuses to bow too. Superb, award-worthy performances from Depp and Highmore are just the bows on this beautifully done early Christmas present. I'm a grown man who loves beer, football and sexy women but I'm not ashamed to say that I blubbed more then once and that I wouldn't hesitate to describe 'Finding Neverland' as enchanting.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.