Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Movie Review: Finding Neverland (2004)

Tuesday, December 14, 2004
A film by Marc Forster

J.M Barrie (Johnny Depp) is something of a failed playwright. His latest play has just flopped on opening night. The audience was bored and left the theatre saying how dreadful it was. His relationship with his wife, Mary (Radha Mitchell) is chilly and loveless. But James Barrie still has an incredibly fertile imagination, turning the mundane into something more spectacular and wondrous, if only in his mind. While writing in a park James encounters the Davies family with one of the boys lying under the bench Barrie is sitting on. This boy is pretending to have been imprisoned by the king, George (Nick Roud), who is really just his older brother. Barrie, unlike what most adults would do, plays right along with the scene and tries to bargain young Michael (Luke Spill) out of jail. Immediately Barrie seems to form a friendship with the family, performing a little play with his dog for the family, which includes the mother Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her other two sons Peter (Freddie Highmore) and Jack (Joe Prospero). Barrie spends more and more time with the Davies, befriending Sylvia and playing make believe with the children. From this relationship we see instances of Barrie's imagination taking hold and the creation of aspects of "Peter Pan".

Three of the boys join in and play every game with James Barrie, but young Peter does not. Still grieving and resentful at the death of his father, Peter will not play. In talking with James, however, Peter starts to come out of his shell. It is clear that this friendship, which is entirely innocent of anything romantic (in the case of Sylvia) or otherwise is of great comfort both to the Davies family as well as to James Barrie. There is conflict, of course. Sylvia's mother, Mrs Emma Du Maurier (Julie Christie) disapproves because of Barrie's behavior but also because she feels that the friendship will only cause a scandal and ruin any chance of Sylvia's being able to remarry into "Society". Barrie, of course, is married. This is the other major conflict. Mary is resentful of the time Barrie spends away from her, but it is also clear that their relationship is not working even before he met Sylvia and her family. They were already sleeping in separate bedrooms (though that may have been a cultural thing, I am not sure).

While all of this is happening, the producer of Barrie's plays, Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman) is trying to get Barrie's new play financed and is very worried when he sees what it is. It is a play about fairies and children with an alligator and a grown man who must dress up in a dog costume. Since these plays are shown to the "High Society", it is a play destined to flop. Coming from the twenty first century, we also know it is destined to become a classic in "Peter Pan".

Rated PG, "Finding Neverland" is a wonderful family film. In fact, that is the exact word that came to mind as I walked out of the theatre: Wonderful. There is truly a sense of wonder about J.M. Barrie and his imagination which created Neverland. His friendship with the Davies comes off as genuine and heartfelt and entirely natural. Johnny Depp's performance carries the movie, though Winslet and the four children are also to be commended for how well "Finding Neverland" has turned out. Depp is much more restrained here than in most of his other movie, but he still is able to shine through with a quirkly personality that feels appropriate to Barrie. "Finding Neverland" is a very imaginative movie, beautifully shot, with enough scenes of Barrie's imagination to override what could have otherwise been a drab London. This is clearly one of the best movies of the year.


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