An even hundred years ago, when Peter Pan first lit up the London stage, J. M. Barrie did what few writers ever have -- he invented a myth. Since then, the ticking crocodile of time has done nothing to blemish his invention but a great deal to change the audience for it.
Today's cultural spectrum, in sharp contrast to the era of those earnest Edwardians, has grown infantilized at one end and faux-mature at the other. Our problem is adults who refuse to grow up and children who grow up too fast, a trend so pronounced that, in certain male circles, Peter Pan has regressed from a myth into a syndrome. If, a century later, the lessons of the eternal boy have been learned rather too well, you might well ask how the original myth now fits into our topsy-turvy culture?
You might well ask, but Finding Neverland certainly doesn't. Instead, preserving Barrie in amber, it's content to be a sweet little tearjerker. But here's the upside. Because it's a well-crafted and superbly acted sweet little tearjerker, we're content too -- it's a mild pleasure to watch.
This is essentially a making-of-the-myth movie, a fictionalized look at how Barrie came to forge his masterpiece. Some of the biographical details are accurate, but many have been altered or warped to allow for a freer and thicker flowing of the sentimental sap. Nothing wrong with that. The film is just doing to the author what he did to his own raw material, although not nearly as memorably.
It picks up the expatriate Scot (Johnny Depp) in the England of 1903, points to his reputation as a semi-successful playwright, then follows him on that fateful walk into Kensington Gardens, where, accompanied by Porthos his loyal St. Bernard, he first meets the four Llewelyn Davies boys and their widowed mother Sylvia (Kate Winslet). Right quick, Barrie amuses the kids by spinning a tale that pretends Porthos is a bear, a cue for director Marc Forster to further dramatize the yarn with realistic cinematic embellishments.
At first, this latter step seems jarring and even thematically contradictory, obviating the need for us to exercise our own powers of imagination. But over the ensuing months, as the boys inspire Barrie to invent his adventures in Neverland, the same process gets repeated several times, and we learn to tolerate the gimmick -- it stops being intrusive and just becomes innocuous.
Far more interesting is how the script deals with the concern that's bound to strike the contemporary viewer square between the eyes: What in the name of Michael Jackson is this guy doing neglecting his beleaguered wife (Radha Mitchell) and practically moving in with someone else's children? Even Edwardian tongues are wagging a little and, although Sylvia seems to approve, her sharp-tongued mother (Julie Christie) assuredly does not. Yet the movie, like all of Barrie's biographers, is insistent that his motives are as pure as his behaviour. He genuinely loves the kids because he's simply a big kid himself.
And a thoroughly asexual one. After a hard day's play with the boys, punctuated by the occasional platonic interlude with their mom, Barrie scurries home to retreat into his very separate bedroom, leaving his childless and understandably frustrated spouse to fend for herself. When she does, quitting him for more fertile male terrain, he barely seems to notice. Naturally, for our star actor, this poses a performing problem. The real Barrie was physically unimposing, even homely. The real Depp is anything but. How, then, does a sex symbol play a sexless character?
Answer: By abandoning his usual hirsute props, the facial hair and long locks, and substituting a commendable Scottish burr, a neatly clipped appearance and an eerie calm so imperturbable that he seems to disappear into himself -- and, thus, into his imagination. It all works. Depp brings off something remarkable here: He converts his screen presence into anti-presence, yet without losing the magnetism.
The physical spark comes from Winslet who, early on anyway, shows us an eminently vibrant Edwardian keen to bust out of her corsets and jump straight into the Jazz Age. Unhappily for her, and us, Sylvia's hacking cough checks that impulse, and begins the job of putting the hankie into the weepy. As for the supporters, Christie does sharp work as the cantankerous granny, while Dustin Hoffman pops up briefly for comic relief -- he's the exasperated theatre producer faced with the prospect of barking nannies and flying sprites.
Like Depp, director Forster also has a tough transition to make here. The sexual heat of Monster's Ball isn't exactly a dress rehearsal for the chasteness of J. M. Barrie. But he enters into this airy realm nicely, especially during the climactic scenes, intercutting beautifully between the eternal boy's opening night and the loving mother's good night. Of course, the ending is always the test of any tearjerker, and this one hits the lachrymose mark, with sweetness and light -- literally, over a white fade-out.
That's not to say the movie ever truly finds Neverland, which, in the original myth, Barrie invested with various undercurrents as dark and strange as his own odd psyche. But modern productions tend to gloss over these trouble spots. The years have Disneyfied Peter Pan, and this treatment extends the same gentle courtesy to its author. That's probably kind -- today's un-grownups might be scared off by anything else.