I think I was expecting too much from Finding Neverland. Since last year gave us what I considered the ultimate film version of Peter Pan, I was hoping that Finding Neverland would be the definitive biopic on the play’s author, J.M. Barrie.
With Marc Forster, director of the heavy-hitting Monster’s Ball at the helm, and a cast showcasing Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Dustin Hoffman and Julie Christie, it looked like we were in for something extraordinary. What we got instead is a very good but far from extraordinary film. Rather than a worthy companion piece to P.J. Hogan’s 2003 Peter Pan, the movie is too much like a sanitized copy of Mike Leigh’s brilliant (and very unsanitized) Gilbert and Sullivan biopic, Topsy Turvy.
Indeed, Hogan’s Peter Pan is far darker than Finding Neverland, which not only avoids the sexual subtext in Barrie’s life and work, but goes out of its way to dismiss it. First-time screenwriter David Magee has apparently seen a lot of biopics in his day. His script, based on a play by Allan Knee, isn’t likely to frighten the horses, but it is likely to cause a lot of head-scratching among Barrie fans.
The story raises (mostly via gossip) the question of whether Barrie (Depp) was a little too taken with a family of young boys, before discarding the idea and focusing on a wholly fictional quasi-romance between Barrie and the boys’ mother, Sylvia (Winslet). This is no doubt less tricky material for mainstream audiences to safely navigate, but it’s not terribly honest — nor is it all that interesting.
In fact, it’s rather dull, a problem not at all helped by the inclusion of too many biopic cliches. Back in 1945, audiences snickered when Cornell Wilde’s Chopin started doing the Marguerite Gautier routine, with decorous coughing fits and a few drops of fake blood hitting the piano keys to telegraph that he would soon expire from tuberculosis. Nearly 60 years later, it seems a little much to find Winslet’s Sylvia in the grips of the same cinematic fate.
However, there are plusses to the film, one of which is sufficiently fine to hoist Finding Neverland into the realm of this year’s better films. The overall concept of focusing on one part of Barrie’s life — the circumstances that caused him to write Peter Pan and the production of the play — makes the material compact and tractable, unlike the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach of another current biopic, Ray.
Moreover, the performances are hard to fault. Depp is a brilliant performer under almost any circumstance, and that’s no different here. Winslet equals his performance. The legendary Julie Christie brings true humanity to a role that, in other hands, could so easily have been comprised of nothing more than cliches and contrivances. Dustin Hoffman, as Barrie’s beleaguered producer, offers as richly comic and nuanced a performance as could be wished.
And finally, there’s young Freddie Highmore (Two Brothers) as Peter Llewelyn Davies. He may not be quite the revelation that Jeremy Sumpter and Theodore Chester were in Peter Pan, but he brings to the role the kind of childhood gravity rarely seen outside the oeuvre of Tim Burton (who, incidentally, has cast Highmore in the lead of the new Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). HIghmore captures the serious side of childhood — including its aching terrors — beautifully, and his scenes with Depp are among the most moving in the film.
Beyond all this, though, is Finding Neverland‘s depiction of two different stagings of Peter Pan. In many other scenes, director Forster displays an unfortunately leaden touch that suggests there’s not a whimsical bone in his being. (When Barrie pretends that his dog is a bear, it looks like a clumsy outtake from Big Fish.) But when it comes to anything dealing with the theater, his touch is just right, comparing favorably with that of Leigh in Topsy Turvy and Mike Newell in the overlooked An Awfully Big Adventure (which takes its title from a phrase in Peter Pan).
Forster might miss the magic elsewhere, but when his film turns its attention to the theater and the whole theatrical experience, you realize he’s a major filmmaker. Few directors can manage even one sincerely emotional scene, but the entire final fourth of this film is nothing but sincere emotion. From the moment Barrie’s 25 “special guests” show up for the premiere of Peter Pan, to the film’s final scene, Forster creates something so special that you almost forget the film’s false steps. If only the whole movie could have had this resonance, it would have indeed been extraordinary.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke