Finding Neverland

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 11/19/04 16:10:36

"I do believe in Johnny Depp!"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

“Finding Neverland” is a biopic about an artist best known today for creating one work so famous and beloved that it remains the single thing that he remains known for today, it explores the platonic behind-the-scenes relationship that wound up influencing both the work and his life and it poses him as a dreamer in a stultifyingly rational world that looks upon him as a freak and an outsider. In other words, it plays a lot like Tim Burton’s wonderful “Ed Wood”, and not just because Johnny Depp stars in both of them. Of course, by focusing on author J.M. Barrie, the creation of his theatrical masterpiece “Peter Pan” and his friendship with a beautiful-but-sickly widow with a brood of adorable children instead of on the cross-dressing creator of “Plan 9 From Outer Space” and his friendship with the drug-addled Bela Lugosi, the makers of “Finding Neverland” have come up with a somewhat more audience-friendly approach to the subject. Even though it may lack a certain edge (being Miramax Oscar bait, after all), the material is presented with enough humor and emotion, not to mention several splendid performances, that even the hardest of hearts may find themselves genuinely moved by the majority of least until the spectacularly horrible final moment. (More about that later.)

Even the openings, in which playwright Depp peeks in on his audience during a tepid opening-night performance of his latest work, are remarkably similar. The difference here is that while Wood was boundlessly enthused with his own work, Barrie is fully aware that he has come up with a flop. Urged by his producer (Dustin Hoffman in full scenery-chewing mode) to come up with something new in a hurry in order to cut their losses, Barrie, and his ever-present sheepdog, sits in a park trying to come up with an idea and finds himself enraptured by the sight of a group of children at play. They are the brood of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet), a young widow under pressure from her domineering mother (Julie Christie) to marry again for the sake of convenience. Barrie befriends the family and soon spends all of his time with them spinning elaborate stories-mostly aimed at young Peter (Freddie Highmore), who has hit the age where the imagination doesn’t work as well as it once had.

Although nothing improper occurs, the relationship between Barrie and Sylvia inspires bad feelings all around. His social-climbing wife (Radha Mitchell) strenuously disapproves of her-mostly, it seems, because of Sylvia’s lower social standing, her mother is outraged at Barrie for lowering Sylvia’s marriage prospects and, according to Barrie’s friend Arthur Conan Doyle (Ian Hart in a nice cameo), all of London assumes that the two are having an affair. On the other hand, hanging out with Sylvia and her kids begins to inspire a new idea for a play-a piece involving pirates and faeries and a boy who refuses to grow up. (One of the great joys of the film is the scene in which the puzzled actors are having their roles explained to them-especially the man who learns that he will be playing a dog.)

Throughout his career, Johnny Depp has made a name for himself for playing a variety of nuts, kooks and crazy dreamers-so many that it is impossible to think of another actor who could possibly play the role of J.M. Barrie. And yet, even though he has played this sort of part many times before, he still finds new and intriguing things to do with it. Too many other actors might have been tempted to play up the childlike qualities of the role at the expense of the scenes involving genuine adult emotion. Depp, on the other hand, finds a smart balance between the two aspects so that he can effortlessly slip from one to the other without it ever seeming contrived. In fact, his performance is so good that it may well overshadow the work of his co-stars. Given a role that should by all mean be unplayable (when was the last time anyone ever made anything out of the role of sad widow with one of the incurable movie diseases that makes you look increasingly beautiful as you get sicker?), Kate Winslet is quite moving and wonderful and Julie Christie turns in another in her recent string of late-career appearances that make you wish she would work a lot more often than she does. As Barrie’s producer, Dustin Hoffman contributes one of those flamboyantly hammy turns that you expect from the likes of Peter O’Toole and he is delightful at it; his reaction when he discovers exactly how Barrie wants to use the numerous tickets he requested for the opening-night performance of “Peter Pan” is simply hilarious. (Also, special kudos for whoever came upwith the brilliant idea of having the always-saucy Kelly MacDonald play the first Peter Pan, a notion strong enough to make anyone believe in faeries.)

By all right, “Finding Neverland” should be unbearable treacle, even before we learn that Sylvia is herself deathly ill. While events do play out as a little too smoothly to seem entirely true (the dark rumors about Barrie’s interest with the children is glossed over, as is the apparent fact that he and Sylvia met before the death of her husband), the gift of David Masee’s screenplay is that he never lets things get too far out of hand.. Even towards the end, in which Sylvia, too ill to attend the premiere of “Peter Pan”, is treated to a full-scale performance in her parlor, director Marc Forster gets his laughs and tears without resorting to cheap ploys to provoke a response. There is a fine line between the sentimental and the saccharine and “Finding Neverland” always keeps its feet firmly planted in the land of the former.

Until the ending, that is. In an inexplicable lapse of taste and judgment, the perfect final images of “Finding Neverland” fade away and are immediately replaced by one of the worst end-credit songs I can remember-a braying ballad from Elton John that skews so far away from the genuine emotion of the film proper that it almost becomes laughable. It isn’t even a matter of whether it is a decent song or not (though even by the reduced standards of John’s post-1970’s catalogue, the tune sucks), what is so grossly offensive about it is that it has nothing to do with the film, adds nothing but the possibility of a Best Original Song nomination (where quality, recent wins by Dylan, Springsteen and Eminem to the contrary, generally takes a back seat to star power) and winds up destroying the magic that all involved with the film have created. Apparently,the inclusion of the song was less the idea of the filmmakers (In an article in “Premiere”, Forster admitted “It doesn’t feel right” and Depp stated, “I think that Elton John and Bernie Taupin have written some sublime pieces of music with equally sublime lyrics over the years, but this isn’t one of those”) and more the idea of Miramax poobah Harvey Weinstein. My recommendation-see the film and bolt the second the credits start while covering your ears and chanting “I don’t believe in Harvey!”

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