In his immortal play Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie bequeathed to the ages one of the strangest and most enduring visions of childhood in all of literature. His was an ambiguous fantasy of freedom from time, from parents, even from gravity itself. In his world, a large dog worked as a family's nanny, a flying boy lost his shadow, and a gang of happy children lived and played in a magical place called Neverland, a fantastic landscape, beyond the knowledge and control of adults, where a nature spirit dressed in green named Peter Pan led the Lost Boys on adventures with pirates and Indians.
The play also featured such bizarre and wonderful characters as an Indian princess named Tiger Lily, the fairy Tinker Bell, the malevolent Captain Hook, and a crocodile who swallowed an alarm clock. The movie Finding Neverland suggests that the entire creation derives in fact from Barrie's own life.
The movie deals with a brief period in Barrie's career in the early years of the 20th century, during which the successful Scottish playwright, played by Johnny Depp, befriends a young widow, Sylvia Davies (Kate Winslet) and her sons, a family that ultimately inspires his great work. Like many important writers of children's literature --- Hans Christian Andersen, Robert Louis Stevenson, Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, even J. D. Salinger --- Barrie exhibits a profound eccentricity, which in some of his peers borders on pathology.
He prefers the company of children and chooses a kind of eternal childhood for himself. He provides some emotional support for the lonely and beleaguered Sylvia, who must contend with a domineering and overprotective mother (Julie Christie), and spends much of his time playing all sorts of games with the four Davies boys.
Although it leads in part to the breakup of his marriage to Mary (Radha Mitchell), the relationship between Barrie and Sylvia appears entirely sexless --- they never even kiss --- indicating something of the writer's own childlike nature. He and his wife occupy separate bedrooms, for example, and he sleeps only with his large Newfoundland (the model for Nana in the play). His interest in the young boys is also pure and sincere, with no hints of the pedophilia that preoccupies the suspicions of our tainted time.
As the movie shows the growing relationship between Barrie and the Davies family, it also suggests the numerous connections between their lives together and his career, especially the gestation of his marvelous play. A glimpse of their grandmother scolding the boys reveals to him the idea for Captain Hook, and troubled young Peter Davies supplies the inspiration for Peter Pan himself. Unfortunately, as his creativity flourishes, the frail Sylvia Davies, apparently suffering from tuberculosis, one of the great killers of the age, declines, so that the play also becomes a kind of recognition of death and loss.
Naturally, however, when he initially describes his curious work to his producer Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman) and the actors who will appear in it, the whole enterprise seems absurd --- a flying boy, a dog who puts the children to bed, a fairy, a pirate captain, and so forth simply confuse and distress the people involved. For the opening night the canny Barrie salts the audience with young children from an orphanage, knowing that they will understand and appreciate the story and the people. Their reactions encourage the affluent, sophisticated, inhibited playgoers to respond as well: Peter Pan, of course, proves to be a great hit, and as we all know, becomes one of the classics of children's literature.
In his interpretation of an odd and gentle genius Johnny Depp demonstrates once again his quirky versatility, handling an unusual role with remarkable restraint and understatement. He underplays with a good deal of dignity and charm, so that this grown man who plays with children, puts on silly plays, and dresses up in costumes, never appears forced or foolish, but always in control of himself and always entirely sympathetic.
He speaks calmly and carefully, never raises his voice, and despite the strong emotions he experiences and displays, never even hints at exaggeration or melodrama. It's a wonderful performance.
Aside from its depiction of a short time in the playwright's life and career, Finding Neverland provides a rare and touching interpretation of Peter Pan itself. It suggests considerable ambiguity in that fantastic vision, a sense that Neverland exists not only as a place in the imagination but also as the land of heart's desire, an escape not only from time but from life, a destination not terribly different from Heaven itself. As an ancient lady remarks to Barrie after the triumph of his opening night, we all hear the ticking of the clock in the crocodile.
Finding Neverland (PG), starring Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Radha Mitchell, Dustin Hoffman, Freddie Highmore; directed by Marc Foster. Cinemark Tinseltown, Little Theatres, Loews Webster, Pittsford Plaza Cinema, Regal Culver Ridge.