January 4, 2005

A Bittersweet Neverland

by JEREMIAH LEWIS, American Digest Film Editor


How do you criticize a film as family friendly and gosh-darned sentimental as Finding Neverland? It's feel-good enough to feel good about it and yourself when you walk out of the theatre, yet there's enough conflict and sadness that it makes you water up while watching. It's got Johnny Depp with a charming Scottish brogue, and Kate Winslet in a suprising low-key role that makes ample use of her wayfarer good looks and British smile to convince us she's a harried but loving mother with fantasy on the brain and tuberculosis on the lungs. And the kids--oh, the kids! They're all lovable runts and swags and adventurers themselves, except for Peter of course, whose oh-so-serious demeanor instantly endears us to him. He's taken his father's death quite seriously, and it seems there's no room for make-believe in his world now.

So goes director Marc Forster's gentle story of J.M. Barrie and his lost boys. It really is a sweet tale, and one that plays the material it's given with as much dignity, thoughtfulness, and inventiveness as it can muster. The work behind the camera is probably the most telling and respectable though; Forster skillfully intermixes fantasy with reality which, when you think about it, is quite a playful irony, since the film itself is a play on reality and an attempt to capture, using the fantastical, a piece of the inspiration that led Barrie to write the play "Peter Pan".

Indeed, this is a fairy tale in its own right, one that is aware, if only slightly so, that fairy tales are not always friendly to children. Barrie (Depp) is a man who is deeply aware of the divide between child and adult; his work is infused with the knowledge that time passes like a crocodile with a terrible ticking clock, that each moment of waking brings the adult closer and the child further away. And it is this knowledge and sadness that drives Barrie's friendship with the Davies' boys Michael (Luke Spill), George (Nick Roud), Peter (Freddie Highmore), and Jack (Joe Prospero), and their mother Sylvia Llewelyn (Kate Winslet), recently widowed and left with nearly no money to care for the family.

The boys are quite taken with Mr. Barrie, and Sylvia seems to rather enjoy his platonic friendship. Likewise, Barrie enjoys their carefree spirit, their imaginative games and clear love for each other, and in his time with them he begins to find the makings of Neverland, a place of dreams and youth and never-endings. Yet trouble arrives in the form of Mrs. Emma du Maurier (Julie Christie), Sylvia's mother and guardian of the Davies' more practical needs. Concerned with Sylvia's deteriorating health, she sequesters the family and attempts to keep Barrie away.

Then there is the theatre owner Mr. Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman), who is concerned that the play Barrie has written will be his financial ruin. Too, Barrie's home life has deteriorated with his increased visits with the Davies'; his wife Mary Ansell (Radha Mitchell) feels shut out, and seeks solace in the arms of another man. And there are the vague rumours floating around about how much time Barrie spends with the boys.

If all this seems dismal, it is sprinkled with the lightheartedness only a man seemingly unconcerned with reality can generate. Barrie seems almost blind to his predicament, and even in the face of tragedy musters the only thing that seems real--the fantasy and magic of Neverland.

In many ways, Finding Neverland is a naive film with high aspirations, yet it is grounded in the limitations of the script by David Magee, adapted from the play by Alan Knee. There is sentiment aplenty--in fact, an overabundance of it, and it speaks falsely, in the same way a stale sugar cookie is still stale. The sweetness of its purpose, and its appealing face is well-intentioned, but the backing seems thin and bloodless.

While Depp's performance is good, he's done better work. Winslet, who I don't usually like, is at least tolerable. The boys are, well, they're boys, sometimes turning in flat performances. The standout is Freddie Highmore, playing a lost and disheartened Peter with the honesty and rough edges a boy his age should exhibit. Julie Christie is superb as the evil, but well-intentioned grandmother whose redemption is found in Barrie's fantasy world. Hoffman turns in a great performance as well, as usual.

As simple and magical as the world J.M. Barrie created was, the real world he inhabited seems to be only slightly more complicated, and the problems presented therein are merely stamps to be stuck to the ceiling. Is it any surprise when those stamps eventually come floating down? Though Finding Neverland is a pretty, life-affirming fairy tale, it doesn't quite convince. It is worth a watch, however, even despite all that, if for nothing else, to be reminded of the preciousness of time, and to watch a surehanded director unveil a fantasy world with energy and vibrance. There may be a fairy tale lesson in that, after all.

Jeremiah Lewis of Fringe reviews films both at his site and American Digest. Lewis can be reached directly at jeremiah.lewis@gmail.com

Posted by Vanderleun at January 4, 2005 2:42 AM
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