Starring: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Radha Mitchell, Dustin Hoffman, Ian Hart, Freddie Highmore, Nick Roud
Synopsis: The genesis of the tale of Peter Pan and how writing the story changed the author’s life.
Finding Neverland is based on the Alan Knee play of the same
name. It tells the story of how J.M. Barrie befriended a family
of boys who then became the inspiration for the story of Peter
Pan. So trot out the corsets because here comes another period
drama to bore you senseless…not!
I was going to let Finding Neverland go to DVD, but seeing as it was
one of the few things I hadn’t seen and something my compatriots were
willing to see, it became a cinema experience instead. Which was
fortunate indeed. Finding Neverland is a truly rare find these
days – a simply story told emotionally without lashings of false
sentiment. Johnny Depp is simply wonderful as J.M. Barrie, a
Scottish playwright whose passion for storytelling is renewed though
his association with the Llewellyn-Davies family.
It is the contention of the movie (and of the play presumably) J.M.
Barrie’s great affection for the Llewellyn-Davies family that makes
Peter Pan such a classic. The fanciful embroidery of the time
they spend together into a story full of mysticism and adventure is
something truly wonderful to watch and the touchstone moments in the
movie where the parallel’s between the lives of the Llewellyn-Davies
and the story of Pan are drawn is beautifully evoked by director Marc
Kate Winslet uses her porcelain beauty to great effect as Sylvia
Llewellyn-Davies, mother of the four boys. Sylvia is Barrie’s
Wendy, the great love of his life, a woman with whom he can share his
true heart. The scene with Winslet playing walk the plank with
Barrie and her boys (and who in Barrie’s imagination is dressed as a
pirate, dripping wet) is terrific and particularly underscores how
completely devoid of true passion Barrie’s marriage to Mary Barrie is.
Barrie’s association with the Llewellyn-Davies family still attracts
nasty innuendo regarding possible paedophilia in the relationship
(evidence proving this salacious inference has never been found).
Similarly, his association with the boys and their mother was a scandal
in his time. Particularly as his generosity to the family, who
were languishing in genteel poverty prior to meeting Barrie, was seen
as an indication of Sylvia’s status as his mistress. Marc Forster
goes to great lengths in the film to indicate that Sylvia and Barrie
were not lovers in the conventional sense. Rather, their
relationship is portrayed as a deeply passionate but intensely platonic
one – much like the relationship between Wendy and Pan whose love for
each other is undeniable but certainly far from carnal.
Interesting for us Aussies is the casting of Radha Mitchell as Mary
Ansell Barrie. She has the rather thankless task of playing
Barrie’s class conscious and socially ambitious wife, whose waspish
demeanour endears her to no-one, but whose plight is pitiful
nonetheless (never marry someone and assume they will make you better
person or that you will be able to change them). Barrie it would
seem, made a very bad match in Mary, who bemoans his inability to
bestow upon her the wonder of his Neverland in the same way that he can
create it for the Llewellyn-Davies. The sad truth is that while
she recognises his genius, and must have loved him once, he is totally
unable to provide her with the things she desires from life.
Similarly, she finds it impossible to free herself from the realities
of everyday life and join Barrie in his world of make believe.
One is given the impression that she was attracted to his genius but
found it much harder to live with than she ever expected. Were I
to be uncharitable I would say that lacking an imagination of her own
she thought she would have one settled on her as part of the marriage
agreement. For his part, Barrie must have simply assumed that she
could give up the security of the everyday without a backward glance
(as he can) to live on tales of ambrosia. Whilst it would be
simple to construe Mary Barrie as an unsatisfied shrew, Forster uses
his deft touch with emotion to ensure that neither Mary or Barrie are
demonised. They are simply people who were unwise in their choice
of partners, and who can claim not to have made similar poor choices
Director Marc Forster steers Finding Neverland with an even hand,
avoiding the caustic and excoriating extremes of emotion his previous
picture, Monster’s Ball, delivered. In fact he brought me to
intermittent tears throughout the final 20 minutes of the film – and
not by playing on cheap sentimentality either. The entrance of
Barrie’s special guests for the first performance of Peter Pan set me
off and the weeping continued through scenes filled with love and hope
and wonder (I know exactly how that reads, but trust me on this).
Forster allows the audience to really connect with exactly why J.M.
Barrie’s Pan continues to be so popular, and why even through he has
many other works to his credit, Peter Pan is his enduring legacy.
You can be left in no doubt that the creative urge behind Barrie’s Pan
was a deep and abiding love of the Llewellyn-Davies boys and their
Freddie Highmore delivers the best performance from a child actor in
recent memory as Peter Llewellyn-Davies. Utterly without guile or
precociousness he is a child old before his time, wrestling with the
pain of his father’s untimely death and dismissing Barrie’s antic’s as
frippery. Barrie’s attempts to encourage Peter to set his
imagination free forms the other significant relationship in the
movie. This is not just a love triangle between Barrie, Mary and
Sylvia Llewellyn-Davies. Barrie loves Peter and his brothers as
if they were his own sons. Yet he somehow loves Peter more, for
the fierce determination he has to be grown up and put childish things
behind him masks his deep joy at creating imaginary worlds – a pursuit
he dismisses as a ‘just a bit of silliness really’. To Barrie,
Peter is an echo of himself. The shot of Highmore sitting alone
on a park bench, his feet unable to touch the ground, adrift in a harsh
adult world of loss, was simple and beautiful and brought forth more
tears (I know what a sap, but I can barely do it justice in text,
you’ll just have to see it for yourself).
Julie Christie puts in a fine turn as Sylvia’s mother Mrs. Emma du
Maurier. Her vehement opposition to Barrie’s relationship with
her daughter and her grandchildren provides just the right amount of
dramatic tension. As an aside I have to report that it was lovely
to see a beautiful woman age gracefully without the aid of the
surgeon’s knife. Christie manages to retain all the luminous
beauty she displayed in Dr Zhivago despite being 40 years older.
She has great presence on screen, and is a formidable opponent for Depp
Finding Neverland is not a big movie, full of flashy effects. Nor
does it drip with manufactured emotion. It is a simple story that
deals with an altruistic kind of love that is rarely seen these days,
on the screen or off. It made me cry. Go see it for
The Litmus Test
There is no real reason to go to the cinema to see this one, but it was
fun to watch the houselights come up and see lots of damp cheeked
people laughing at themselves and others because the movie has
surprised them into tears (the good kind).