Depp delights in hit and miss 'Finding Neverland'

by Nick Desai | 1/17/05 6:00am

The concept of the biopic is sort of ridiculous because lives aren't stories, though they often contain some. That's why it's refreshing that "Finding Neverland," in telling "Peter Pan" author J. M. Barrie's story, relates one episode in the author's life without dwelling on ridiculous details of the subject's "past," that is, the traumatic childhood experiences to which too many people ascribe all the world's problems. I'm thinking of the disingenuous preachiness of "Kinsey," which displayed more interest in simplifications and prescriptions than character.

Director Marc Forster's Barrie certainly has a message; he sees a fatally mature society that disdains the virtues of childhood. But while Bill Condon's Albert Kinsey couldn't help winking at the audience as he crusaded against "the forces of chastity," Barrie, as sensitively depicted by Johnny Depp, seems legitimately entranced by the children he meets and the literary worlds he creates.

The real Barrie, the Scottish playwright from around the turn of the previous century, did in fact befriend a widow and her young sons, on whom he based the characters in his play "Peter Pan." It sounds sappy only because children in movies are so often caricatures of what sappy adults wish them to be.

The Davies children have personalities and foibles. Michael, the youngest, speaks too honestly and too loudly, much to the chagrin of the eldest, George, who is precocious, moral and curious. Jack's a little underdeveloped, but character of Peter makes up for it by being the most interesting character in the film.

Peter's the serious kid that you probably knew once; though his seriousness stems from the death of his father by cancer. He's rejected the childishness of childhood not because he doesn't enjoy it but because it just doesn't make sense. Trademark line: "Just a bit of silliness, really."

Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet, in a performance as reserved here as her performance in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" was reckless) heads this family with the mantle of maternity and a tinge of sadness. She performs chores and rears her children, but earns scorn from her socially-minded mother (Julie Christie).

Meanwhile, Barrie is trying very hard to be an adult. On his latest play's opening night, he extends a mirror past the curtain to peruse audience reactions and is devastated by their disgust. He kisses his wife (Radha Mitchell) unconvincingly. He struggles to talk to other grown-ups.

His chance meeting with the Davies children in the park allows him an escape back into a childhood that vanished, he explains, after the death of his brother. Soon dubbed "Uncle Jim," Barrie, Sylvia and the boys play every day -- pirates, cowboys and Indians, the circus.

Some of the best scenes come during these moments, as Forster moves between the fantasy sets and the adult world. Sometimes, Barrie seems to be having more fun than the children. For the sake of fun, perhaps, these children don't mind being bossed around.

Naturally, these activities arouse the suspicions of tea-sipping society types, who hint at marital infidelity and perhaps pedophilia. "You find a glimmer of happiness in this world," responds Barrie, "there's always someone who wants to destroy it."

He's right, though there are more legitimate critiques of that sort of life. He constantly advises the children to avoid growing up too fast; he extols the merits of pretending. When the health of his mother comes into doubt, Peter sobs that he won't be made a fool. There's something to be said for reality.

The film doesn't shirk this question, luckily. Maybe Edwardian England is too affected and aged, but how much trust should we place in pure naivete? Even Wendy Darling, in "Peter Pan," eventually abandons Peter and his fantasies before returning to rear children for the British Empire.

What's more problematic for the film itself concerns the project of explaining the content of Peter Pan through the experiences of Barrie. He imagines villains with hooks for hands and crocodiles in his everyday life. It's a good way to make writing cinematic, but it's far less interesting than his interactions with Sylvia, the boys and his wife.

Several scenes concern the production of the play, with some comic relief from the producer (Dustin Hoffman). The time given to these elements suggests that the film not only wants to explain a man but also to explicate a play.

I wish that Forster had focused more on Barrie and less on his work, maybe because I liked "Finding Neverland" a little more than I liked "Peter Pan." They both deal with similar themes -- innocence, authority, adulthood -- but the film seems less likely to pull the fanciful wool over your eyes. It's about fantasizing, not so much the fantasies themselves.

The impressive performances (particularly Depp's), the wise direction, a tight script and one very clever shot (Barrie and wife entering separate bedrooms -- I won't give away the rest) make "Finding Neverland" worth the price of admission.