A film review by Craig J. Koban


2004, PG, 101 mins.

J. M. Barrie: Johnny Depp / Sylvia Llewelyn Davies: Kate Winslet / Mary Ansell Barrie: Radha Mitchell / Emma du Maurier: Julie Christie / Charles Frohman: Dustin Hoffman / Peter: Freddie Highmore

Directed by Marc Forster / Written by David Magee, based on the Allan Knee play "The Man Who Was Peter Pan."

Okay, so the title of this film sounds like the punch line to yet another really bad Michael Jackson joke.  On a more serious note Marc Forster’s FINDING NEVERLAND represents a very different change of pace for the young director. 

His previous film, the Oscar nominated MONSTER’S BALL, was a searing, painful, and sexually charged portrait of love and bigotry.  In FINDING NEVERLAND Forster explores the origins of the inception of one of the more beloved children’s fantasies on the 20th Century.  No, this is not yet another regurgitated cinematic tale about the legendary boy that did not ever want to grow up; rather, it’s about the creator of the boy, his story, and the muse he needed to tell it. 

Most lay film fans will, no doubt, be familiar with the story of Peter Pan, which is probably most fondly remembered in the 1953 animated classic by Walt Disney Pictures.  What most people are probably not too aware of (myself, foolish ignorance admitted, as well) is that Peter Pan is not so much a product of the film world, but one of the stage world of the London theatre at the dawn of the 20th Century.  

The man – J.M. Barrie – was a modestly successful playwright who, apparently after a series of flops, hit critical and audience mass with his fantastical tale of children who could fly, evil and despicable pirates, fairies, and the wonderfully vibrant world of Neverland.  It's easy for us to take for granted what an real jolt that it caused modern audiences of the time, seeing as most of Barrie’s work (at least as the film tells us) were boring and pretentious works seen largely by London’s wealthy aristocracy.  Peter Pan’s success, in hindsight, was quite extraordinary. 

So, Miramax Pictures (which is a subsidiary of Disney, how ironic) offers up this tale that is “inspired by true events.”  I always found the old fashioned title cards of “based on a true story” to sound just about right, but for some reason in our increasingly ambivalent and uneasy times the term “inspired” has been ushered in for reason of defense.  Well, all biopics, by their very nature, are presumably mixtures of broad fiction and fact, but no more is the feeling of “inspired” by history bare more credence than it does in FINDING NEVERLAND. 

The film is the epitome of those soft-edged approaches to biopics that Oscar voters love (it was nominated just recently for Best Picture), and for the most part it’s a generally pleasant blend of fact, fiction, fantasy, and drama.  Yet, the film seems far too afraid to address some of the inherent ugliness in some of the details of the real Barrie’s life, and instead treats the lurid accusations that were hurled his way at his time as after- thoughts.  For a film that was directed by the man that gave us the grounded and unflinching MONSTER’S BALL, FINDING NEVERLAND is a film that’s interesting, but never really altogether compelling. 

As a biopic, FINDING NEVERLAND follows most of the A-typical conventions of the genre.  We are introduced to Barrie (played competently with enthusiasm and wit by Johnny Depp) a Scottish playwright in 1903 whose prepping his newest play for its premiere in London.  Well, it seems that his latest work is an unmitigated audience fiasco and failure, and inspired boredom and a few insomniacs to reclaim their precious slumber time.  His impresario, Dustin Hoffman (oddly miscast) impresses upon Barrie to come up with something that will win the audiences back to the type of enthusiasm they both want.  Since the theatre is on the line, another flop will not do at all.  Thus, Barrie seeks inspiration to create his next great work. 

While in Kensington Gardens one warn and sunny afternoon he meets the Davies family – recently widowed mother Sylvia (Kate Winslet, at home in her role here) and her boys George, Jack, Michael, and of course, Peter.  Barrie watches them play happily with his dog until he reaches an epiphany, I guess -  he sees the innocence, purity, and spirit of the kids at play and begins to re-awaken to a sort of hidden and powerful theme that may just find it in his next work.  In other words, he’s found his muse. 

Barrie begins to see an awful lot of the Davies’, much to the obvious and understandable disappointment of his beautiful wife Mary (Rhadha Mitchell, in a completely thankless role).  Yet, Barrie does not seem truly interested in Sylvia sexually or romantically (something that the screenplay does not really hint at or deal with at all).  It’s sort of an odd relationship – he likes her very much and idolizes her, maybe because of her children, I guess.  Clearly, Barrie becomes completely obsessed with her boys more, but not (at least in this film) in a lurid king of pop kind of way.  He interacts and plays with the boys constantly, maybe because he yearns for a lack of a real childhood that he had (it is revealed that his older brother died young). 

Barrie continues to spend a compulsive amount of time with the boys, playing games and putting on backyard shows that involve circus people, pirates, cowboys and Indians and all complete with funny and whimsical costumes and a wild and wickedly indulgent sense of fun and wonder.  Sylvia loves the fact (rather quickly and conveniently, it seems) that Barrie, a seemingly strange man mere days earlier, spends so much of his time with her children, maybe because she is developing one of those nasty coughs that inevitably leads to her sickness and any further future involvement with her sons. 

However, not everyone is perfectly happy with Barrie’s efforts.  There is the young son Peter (in the film’s best performance by young Freddie Highmore) who seems mature and wise beyond his years and does not partake with much enthusiasm to Barrie’s theatrics.  It seems that Peter is still dealing with, and rightfully so, the recent death of his father.  It's funny, but never does anyone ever point out to Barrie that perhaps the best way to deal with grief and mourning is not to play cowboys and Indians.  This all goes towards supporting Barrie’s sort of perverse naivety.  He seems so hell-bent on cheering the boys up and making them laugh with his fantasies, that maybe he should have learned from Patch Adams that serious issues sometimes demand serious solutions, but I digress. 

Peter is not the only one that does not like Barrie’s pestering.  As stated earlier, Barrie’s own wife for one, and Mary as portrayed by Mitchell is a woman of completely unrealistic understanding and resolve.  She is, oddly enough, not angry with her husband, but still is rightfully disturbed by his behaviour.  Never does the screenplay allow her to truly open up and go deeper into describing her troubled feelings on the matter.  She is more or less the stereotypical bad wife figure that does not understand the apparent good that her husband is doing.  There is also the even less sympathetic Emma (played by the great Julie Christie), Sylvia’s mother, who is even more one dimensional in how she is normatively portrayed as an antagonist to Barrie that demands him to leave Sylvia and her children alone.  Ironically, and despite the fact that she is painted as a villain, she makes the most sense out of all of the characters, sighting her inability to support a 43 year old married man hanging out with small children while ignoring his own wife.  Recent tabloid and celebrity scandals aside, her concerns are not ungrounded or wrong. 

Yet, this is precisely what is wrong with this story – its complete and fanatical manner in the way it takes great efforts to show us Barrie as a man of vision and insight and not of one that has no common sense or sensitivity to the concerns of others.  Yes, I understand that this is intended to be a biopic for a family audience dealing with the author and his world-renowned creation, but the film is so flat and guileless with its focus and vision.  Now, I do not doubt that Barrie was probably a fairly affable and charming man that was innocent and had only the noblest of intentions with the Davies family.  Clearly, he used the children and their great exuberance fed his hunger to tell a different type of story for the London theatre audiences of his day. 

However, the movie sort of celebrates the zealot-like fixation that he has on his own vision and his lack of anything that resembles rational thought.  He is essentially a character that is in a perpetual dream-like state that can only see the good of his interactions with these children, but he seems completely incapable (or maybe blind) to just how others of the gossiping London society see him.  Pedophilia was a charge that was largely laid on Barrie for most of his life, and in some ways I can understand some people’s concerns.  I am not disappointed because the film neither supported or disclaimed that he was one or not, but rather because it sheepishly dodges it altogether.  In one small moment when another man lets Barrie know what others “are saying”, Barrie ignores and completely disregards it, and it is never dealt with again.  I can kind of see why – FINDING NEVERLAND is more concerned with trying to be a falsely transcending entertainment about a man who created one of our century’s most endearing myths and not with the possible and realistic implications and consequences that his troubling behaviour had. 

The performances in the film are all universally solid, despite the fact that many are inconsistently written and Hoffman seems really out-of-place and too contemporary to be taken seriously as the financial backer of early 1900’s London.  Depp does a very effective job of encapsulating the type of Barrie that this film wants to present – a strangely androgynous (at least in spirit) figure that, no doubt, loves Sylvia and her children, but something always lingered in me when I watched scenes with them together – their relationship seems more bound to the conventions of a movie than real life.  I always gained the impression that there must have been something more to their relationship.  Sylvia, as a character, seems much more complex than this film allows her to be, and her real feelings on many matters are only thinly dealt with.  This is true for the other women of the film, from Barrie’s wife to Sylvia’s mother, who seem less like voices of reason (which they are) and more as stock characters that are intended to act as barriers to Barrie’s desires and wishes and reinforce his persona as righteous.                        

FINDING NEVERLAND represents one of my more disliked film genres – the sanitized biopic.  The film does boast some great performances (Freddie Highmore’s work was a stand-out, especially revealing when you consider that he’s surrounded by great talent) and the film’s sense of period details are spot on.  I am wholeheartedly willing to accept any dramatic liberties that were taken in this film with history (for example, Sylvia was not a widow at the time), but I nevertheless have issues with this film’s sense of focus on some of the more serious and problematic issues that surrounded Barrie’s life.  How ironic that a film that is about the creation of a character that himself is so filled with presence and life that, ultimately, it is rather dull, lifeless, uninspired, and told with too much overt simplicity and false sentiment.  This is a biopic that tries way too hard to not offend anyone’s sensibilities.  Maybe a more interesting look at J.M. Barrie would have given more credence to the obvious controversial overtones of his life?  FINDING NEVERLAND wants to be a film that overwhelms you into an emotional response and make you cry, but I feel that it generally makes you look at it with more scrutiny than sensitivity.  This is a film that needs to be more grown up with its subject.  

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