Every year brings something different to the world of film. Let's call 2004 the year of the biography, as it brought us movies about real-life celebrities and heroes like singing great Ray Charles ("Ray"), industrialist Howard Hughes ("The Aviator"), sex researcher Alfred Kinsey ("Kinsey"), hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina ("Hotel Rwanda"), and playwright J.M. Barrie ("Finding Neverland"), among others. Of the lot, it is Barrie who strikes me as the most enigmatic figure, and while "Finding Neverland" may not be the most powerful film of the bunch ("Hotel Rwanda" takes that honor), it is without a doubt the most touching.
Sir James M. Barrie (1860-1937) was, of course, the creator of the stage play "Peter Pan" (1904). Barrie was already an author of notable repute when he came to write "Peter Pan," having written several important works like "Quality Street" and "The Admirable Crichton"; but nothing quite prepared him or the world for the phenomenal success of "Pan." It ran for years on the English and American stage, continued as a Christmas tradition much like Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker," and was turned into numerous movies, cartoons, and television productions.
Adapted from the play "The Man Who Was Peter Pan" by Allan Knee, the movie "Finding Neverland" deals with the short period of Barrie's life preceding and during his writing of "Peter Pan," and explores some of the author's inspirations for penning it. Clearly, as both the title of the play and the movie suggest, the character of Peter Pan was based on the puzzling life of Barrie himself, a man who may have been more comfortable in the company of children than adults.
The movie stars Johnny Depp, who turns in another remarkable performance. Yet it's remarkable for its restraint; no gypsies, pirates, private eyes, or magical chocolate makers here. While the performance is so low-key it sheds little new light on Barrie's character, it's probably accurate inasmuch as so little is understood about the real man, anyway. What is known is that in 1897 he made the acquaintance of and formed an attachment to a woman, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four young sons: George (Nick Roud), Jack (Joe Prospero), Peter (Freddie Highmore), and Michael (Luke Spill). He then began entertaining them and himself with stories and games, whilst re-experiencing his own childhood with them, all the while to the distraction of his own wife, Mary Ansell Barrie (Radha Mitchell).
The fact that in real life Barrie was himself raised by a domineering mother, grew to less than 5'3" in height, and remained boyish in appearance throughout his life may have further contributed to the perception of his being an eternal child. Depp has the youthful good looks of the real Barrie, if not the short stature, and he presents us with a picture of a man who genuinely seems intrigued by the interests of young people. That his own marriage ended in divorce may be some indication of his less-than-perfect relationships with adults. Moreover, there was at the time, as there is in the movie, talk of his constant companionship with the Davies children being suspect, although to their dying day the surviving Davies boys maintained there was nothing improper or unseemly in their relationship. Barrie comes off in the movie, as in real life, a rather quiet, withdrawn man who simply found it sometimes easier to relate to young people than older ones. When near the end of the movie, young Peter says, "I'm not Peter Pan; he is," it's not only a sweetly heartbreaking moment, it's probably true.
Like most such biographical pieces, the film condenses and manipulates some of the facts of Barrie's life, but that's OK. A degree of poetic license is necessary to capture and maintain our attention. And things are close enough, in any case. During Barrie's association with Sylvia Davies in the movie, for instance, her husband is said to have already died of cancer of the jaw. The death is factual; what isn't is that the husband was quite alive during the whole relationship and didn't pass away until well after "Peter Pan" was produced. What's more, Barrie's wife, who is portrayed as lonely and withdrawn in the movie, with barely a mention that she was in real life a famous stage actress, divorced Barrie in 1910 after conducting a well-publicized affair. (In the movie the Barries are shown occupying separate bedrooms. Although it's implied that because of his work, he is neglecting her and she is avoiding him for it, word of the day suggested that Barrie was impotent, yet another possible symptom of the author's never "growing up.") Sylvia Davies died a few months after the Barries' divorce, some seven years after "Peter Pan" had opened. Her passing was followed by the deaths of two of her four sons, one a casualty of the First World War, the other a suicide at college. Needless to say, portraying these real-life events in the movie would have dampened the spirits of an otherwise charming story, and they were thankfully omitted.
Anyhow, the movie opens with Barrie in the dumps about the failure of a recent play and then quite by accident meeting Mrs. Davies and her boys in a London park. He strikes up a acquaintanceship with the family, which eventually leads to his visiting them often. Like every day. Barrie's lost childhood is re-awakened through the stories he writes for the boys and the games he plays with them; he helps out the mother and kids financially; and he uses his newly adopted family as a substitute for the loving family unit he presumably did not enjoy as a child and does not have with his wife. The situation eventually becomes the inspiration, the springboard, for his writing "Peter Pan," the imaginative story of the boy who never grew up, who stays young and carefree and happy forever.
Depp plays Barrie as a character almost too good to be true, a kind, gentle soul whose motivations in his relationships with the Davies family are depicted as purely honorable and mutually respectful, if somewhat confused on Barrie's part. Winslet, by comparison, is a tower of strength, pragmatism, and resolution. She knows exactly what she wants for herself and her family and directs all of her energies for their good.
The always radiant Julie Christie plays Mrs. Emma Du Maurier, the mother of Mrs. Davies, as a jealous, stern-faced wet blanket, continually reminding her daughter that allowing Barrie into the family circle is improper and will come of no good. In the movie, Barrie may have seen in her something of his own mother, and he uses her as a model for Captain Hook, the adult authority figure who is always trying to thwart youth, merriment, and reverie. The final character of importance (in addition to the children already mentioned) is Dustin Hoffman as theatrical producer Charles Frohman, Barrie's friend and backer, a man flustered and frustrated by Barrie's determination to base a play on fairies and pixie dust. Hoffman's role is small, but he brings to it a wry wit and a perplexed countenance.
The plot develops surely and steadily, building to a persuasive and heartfelt conclusion. Given the story line's absence of too many excessively melodramatic incidents, it is all the more extraordinary that the movie should catch our fancy and hold it for as long as it does. Yet it is a mesmerizing experience, a balmy, poetic vision of a time and place long ago, a vision of a Neverland itself; and like Neverland, a world that probably never was but should have been. Credit a good part of the illusion not only to director Marc Forster, but to film editor Matt Chesse's seamless integration of fantasy and reality, as well as to composer Jan A.P. Kaczmarek's light, delicate, lilting, yet soaring musical score. And stay through the closing credits for pianist Leszek Mozdzer's lovely solo improvisations.
I should note in closing that Forster's direction and David Magee's screenplay move along at a leisurely pace. This is totally in keeping with the nature of the story, the slower lifestyle of the early twentieth century, and the fact that the plot and characters are based upon a dialogue-driven stage play. If you've seen Forster's previous award-winning film, "Monster's Ball," you'll understand that he has a penchant for the creation of convincing characterizations over action for action's sake. "Finding Neverland" is sentimental, to be sure, but a wonderful find for the patient viewer.
Buena Vista give it their best shot, maintaining most of the film's widescreen scope in an anamorphic ratio that measures approximately 2.13:1 across my standard-screen Sony HD television. A healthy bit rate further ensures that colors are deep and solid and object delineation is crisp. Grain, moiré effects, and any obvious halos are generally absent from view. I did, however, observe a small amount of hard glassiness about the picture that I did not notice in the theater. It does nothing to distract one from the beauty of the film.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio does little in the rear channels except reinforce some of the film's musical ambiance, but in the front channels it is clear and clean. The movie is, after all, derived from a stage play and dialogue is of paramount importance, which the sound system reproduces admirably. That said, the front-channel stereo spread is wide, the dynamics are strong when needed, and the depth of image is pronounced.
There is a lean but engaging set of extras on the disc. First, there is an audio commentary with director Marc Forster, producer Richard Gladstein, and writer David Magee. They demonstrate a friendly camaraderie together, yet their remarks are not frivolous. They expound often on the power of imagination to rekindle the childhood spirit in us all, and one can see from their own playfulness that the story's theme may have worn off on them. Second, there is a sixteen-minute featurette, "The Magic of Finding Neverland," that is both informative and whimsical, providing background on the movie, the actors, and the story's history. Third, there is another featurette, this one much shorter at only three minutes, "Creating Neverland," which explores the film's visual effects. I would liked to have seen more. Fourth is a two-minute segment on the film's première, "On the Red Carpet," at which even Hillary Clinton was in attendance and had something to say. (Well, she's a politician; certainly, she had something to say.) Next, there are three deleted scenes, with optional filmmaker commentary. I liked screenwriter David Magee's admission: "I can't figure out why I wrote this scene." And then there are five minutes' worth of outtakes, wherein we see the seemingly staid cast goofing off (like children?) as well as witnessing the happy results of the infamous fart machine.
The disc's extras conclude with Sneak Peeks at other Buena Vista releases, including "Dear Frankie" and "National Treasure"; twelve (only twelve?) scene selections; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; and French and Spanish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired.
For those wanting more behind-the-scenes talk, I had the pleasure of conducting an interview with the film's Oscar-nominated editor, Matt Chesse, who happens to be a former student of mine.
"Finding Neverland" was nominated for seven Academy Awards: Best Picture (Richard Gladstein and Nellie Bellflower), Best Actor (Johnny Depp), Best Art Direction (Gemma Jackson and Trisha Edwards), Best Costume Design (Alexandra Byrne), Best Editing (Matt Chesse), Best Writing (David Magee), and winning the Oscar for Best Music (Jan A.P. Kaczmarek); this in addition to a ton of other awards from, among others, BAFTA, the Golden Globes, the Golden Satellites, the Art Directors Guild, the Broadcast Film Critics Association, and Best Picture of the Year from the National Board of Review. The film's sweetness deserves its praise.
But "every sweet hath its sour," as Emerson said. Barrie's celebrated play about a dream of never growing up was both a blessing and a curse for its author. Humphrey Carpenter in his book "Secret Gardens: The Golden Age of Children's Literature" (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1985), from which many of the facts about Barrie's life in this review were gleaned, writes, "...this dream led Barrie to reflect on his play, and to admit in his notebook the ultimately horrific nature of its theme: 'It is as if long after writing "Peter Pan" its true meaning came to me--Desperate attempt to grow up but can't.'"
Still, what does an author know about his own work. Enjoy the picture.