Taking liberties with the timeline of actual events, Finding Neverland relates the true story of J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp), the Scottish playwright who was inspired to create Peter Pan in 1903 during a summer spent in the company of a widow and her three young boys.
Depp's portrayal of Barrie, though typically accomplished, is subdued and emotionally restrained. For the most part, the emotional turmoil of Barrie's own life (the premature death of his brother, emotionally distant parents and a stifling, passionless marriage) is kept bottled up. It's only while he's interacting with the Davies children (whose father has recently died) that he's able to transcend his own stunted emotional life and perhaps begin to address his own issues. It may be too late to save his marriage, but the experiences do move Barrie to produce a timeless work of children's fiction.
But both Depp and his character are outshined by the performance of young actor Freddie Highmore as Peter, the middle Davies boy (significantly, the one most deeply affected by his father's death) who, more than the other children, inspires Barrie to create Peter Pan. Highmore's Peter is stirring and complex, and the one member of the Davies family who openly challenges Barrie's cheerful -- and at times simplistic -- altruisms and encouragements. Kate Winslet plays her somewhat thankless role as the practical and nurturing Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (the head of the Davies clan) with a grace and a quiet strength and that keeps the often fanciful storyline tethered to the reality of universally human concerns -- namely, trust, commitment, love and mortality.
Eroticism remains absent from the adult characterizations -- an attempt, presumably, to accurately reflect the strict sexual mores of Edwardian England. Yet the near complete lack of it seems odd, if not fantastic. The only hint of adult sexuality is offered is in an oblique way during a brief and clumsy scene involving Barrie's wife (Radha Mitchell) and a gentleman caller.
Minor criticisms aside, Finding Neverland is a handsome and well-acted film, one that artfully manipulates viewer emotions and more often than not delivers its messages with a mercifully light touch.
Publication date: 04/14/05