It's been almost 20 years since the release of Dreamchild, a film that explored the relationship between Lewis Carroll and young Alice Liddell, who became his model for Alice in Wonderland. Now cameras turn to what might have been behind J.M. Barrie's writing of the play Peter Pan. The events of the film start in 1903 London, and are "inspired by true events," as the disclaimer reads. For the record, facts and events portrayed are skewed into a world beyond what any of the people concerned would have recognized, but that does nothing to take away from the impact and enjoyment of watching the film.
Johnny Depp, who hasn't given a bad performance since his bland one all those years ago in A Nightmare on Elm Street, may not top himself here. (There are Ed Wood, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Pirates of the Caribbean to contend with). But he sure does give vibrant life to Scottish writer J.M. Barrie, perfect accent and all.
When first seen in the film, the popular playwright is a nervous wreck, backstage on opening night of a play that one unhappy audience member is heard to say is "rubbish from start to finish." Depp's Barrie is dispirited over it, but it's not long before this boy in a man's body is shown to have a wild imagination, to have eyes that see what no one else can, and the ability to transform his fantastical ideas into words on a page.
But that transformation doesn't happen -- at least in the film's telling -- until he meets his muses. It seems that Barrie regularly used to take a walk to the park with his dog in order to write. On one of his strolls, he bumps into the recently widowed Sylvia Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four young boys. One of them is Peter (Freddie Highmore), a precocious lad who calls Barrie's actions "absurd" when he starts playing around with their dog.
It's here that the film first takes a few steps into the world that's likely always going on in Barrie's mind. His dance with the Davies dog turns into a dance with a huge, obviously fake bear. So what if no one else can see it? Though it's too bad Peter can't.
Before long, and much to the chagrin of Barrie's social climber wife Mary (Radha Mitchell), the Davies family is invited to dinner; soon after, Barrie starts to spend much more time with them than with Mary. Around Mrs. Davies and her boys, he's brighter, happier.
This situation gives the film has a chance to explore the potential for raw emotion in these characters' lives -- an opportunity that director Marc Foster lets go by. A friend tells Barrie that people are talking -- he's spending too much time with the widow. But the innocent-minded Barrie can't believe what he's hearing. He wonders out loud why can't people just be happy and let others be happy. It's clear that Barrie's is not a happy home life -- but like the business of people talking about him, the problems aren't detailed, they're only sketched. Too bad: They're areas that are ripe for examination.
But nothing is held back in other parts of the film. Julie Christie is deliciously demanding and controlling as Sylvia's mother, a wealthy woman who doesn't think much of Barrie and considers him an intruder in their lives. In a wonderful moment that goes by so quickly it's hard to catch, he sees her holding a coat hanger, and pictures it as a hook.
Things are not all play; there's also a persistent sadness running through this film. It tells of bad times in the past, sickness and unhappiness in the present. But it's also about surprises and the wonders they can work. Most important, it's about the power of imagination.