Finding Neverland Review
As the nineteenth century draws to a close, JM Barrie (Johnny Depp), a Scottish playwright living in London, is questioning his choices in life. His latest play has flopped and his marriage to the socially ambitious Mary (Radha Mitchell) has turned sour. Sitting in the park one afternoon, seeking inspiration, Barrie has a chance meeting with widow Sylvia Llewellyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four sons. The boys take to the eccentric writer immediately and with Sylvia's approval, he becomes their regular playmate, teaching them to use their imaginations and to enjoy life. In return, the children become Barrie's muses, helping him conjure up the fantasy world of Peter Pan. Inevitably, this unconventional little circle becomes threatened by those outside it. Although Barrie's relationship with Sylvia is purely platonic, Mary is jealous that her husband pays more attention to these strangers than he does to her, while Sylvia's domineering mother (Julie Christie) is concerned how Victorian society will view her daughter spending time with a married man.
A lot of reviewers have praised Finding Neverland and most of the audience I saw it with were wiping their eyes when the credits rolled so I feel like a grouchy old miseryguts when I say it left me cold. It's not a bad film and it certainly has its moments but to me it seemed manipulative, sentimental and self-consciously prestigious: another big, glossy Miramax production, complete with literary pedigree, period setting and one eye on the Oscar voters. Sentimentality isn't something I always object to - I'm a push-over for a good tearjerker - but there's an art to tugging at the heartstrings and Finding Neverland does it clumsily. I've rarely felt so aware of a film trying to make me reach for my hankerchief. The screenplay by David Magee, based on Alan Knee's play, keeps choosing the most dramatically obvious route. It isn't hard to guess who will have a change of heart, who those theatre seats might be reserved for and what it means when a major character starts coughing.
Another major problem with the film is that its top-drawer cast never convinced me I was watching real, three-dimensional people. Johnny Depp is already being tipped to win next year's Best Actor Oscar and as far as I'm concerned, Depp already deserves the award several times over but I'm not so sure this is the film he should win for - and not just because his Scottish accent kept reminding me of a certain animated ogre. The JM Barrie he portrays in Finding Neverland has very little depth. The script's fictionalisation of his life wouldn't be a problem if it was interested in him as a human being, but it just uses him as a cypher: a sweet, childlike innocent who brings joy to some and upsets others. Depp, a brilliant comedian, makes the most of his opportunities to add humour but on the whole, he appears to be playing a more subdued version of his wide-eyed man-child roles from Edward Scissorhands and Benny And Joon.
Kate Winslet, so good in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, is lumbered with a one-note character, the note being "unflaggingly noble", while the four young actors playing her children are hard to tell apart in their smart little Victorian suits. Considering the story revolves around the boys, more effort could have been made to distinguish them. Veteran British actress Julie Christie and rising Aussie star Radha Mitchell can't make much out of their unconvincingly spiteful villains. Dustin Hoffman does better, contributing a nice, dry turn as Depp's producer. I don't know what attracted him to such a minor part (his previous brush with JM Barrie - Hook - was not a happy one) but he's welcome nevertheless.
Finding Neverland is directed by Marc Forster, whose last movie, Monsters Ball was a powerful and edgy drama. It's a surprise to find the same director's name on a film so safe and middle-brow that it could have been made by Lasse Hallström or Richard Attenborough. Sir Dickie did in fact direct something very similar, 1993's Shadowlands, which starred Anthony Hopkins as another much-loved children's writer, CS Lewis, who formed a relationship with a divorcee and her young son. Shadowlands was also a shameless tear-jerker but an intelligent script and the superb performances of Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger elevated it and gave it some class. Forster's film doesn't have anything like the same sophistication. It's like Shadowlands lite.