A review of “Finding Neverland” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ***

Rating: PG for mild adult situations

Run Time: 1 hour, 46 minutes

 

 

A magical flight of fancy that would benefit from a shade of dusk, Neverland is nevertheless a plum holiday treat.

Johnny Depp can do no wrong so it’s no surprise that his introspective turn as Scottish “Peter Pan” author J.M. Barrie is the cornerstone of this lush (and loosely-based) biography.

Sir Barrie is struggling to find his creative footing in Edwardian-era English theater when he unexpectedly encounters vivacious Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) at Kensington Gardens. Sylvia is no stranger to struggle herself, having recently lost her husband and reeling over the shock of being left a single parent to four boys.

Barrie finds fresh inspiration in the Llewelyn Davies family. Despite the fact that he’s a married man he develops a close friendship with Sylvia and becomes a surrogate father to her boys, inventing an elaborate fantasy world of pirates, cowboys and kings for his young and fatherless friends. 

Disapproval lurks around every corner, from snide public gossip to the incessant pleas of Barrie’s humiliated wife (Radha Mitchell) and the steely disdain of Sylvia’s forbidding mother (Julie Christie). Even loyal theater producer Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman) is skeptical when Barrie presents his daring masterwork for its stage debut. Barrie turns a deaf ear to all, content with being marked a fool if it means happiness.

Happiness is the culprit here, a bit too much of it where reality should grab a stronger foothold.  Imaginative mischief and theatrical sport are gorgeously photographed and literally breathtaking. But Barrie’s antiseptic attitude towards his marriage and his alleged penchant for pedophilia are too narrowly revealed, leaving a core theme untouched and lending the film a delicate air of fiction rather than fact.

Winslet and Depp are celluloid soul-mates; their connection looks and feels genuine. Ditto Depp’s bond with the lads, in particular Sylvia’s son Peter (Freddie Highmore) on whom his character of Pan is based. Depp’s subtle performance underscores Barrie’s stubborn desire to cling fast to his boyhood sensibilities, thus enabling him to beget a mythical hero who refuses to grow up.

The poignant pathos of painful childhoods makes its mark. Impeccable production and a lovely swelling score will make a believer of the most cynical viewer. Exit stage right before closing credits so as not to let the schmaltzy stylings of songster Elton John mar the warm fuzziness generated by the film’s touching climax.