Author J.M Barrie is in the midst of an awful slump. His new play is a flop, his marriage is cold and loveless, and his creative wellspring seems to have dried up for good. Then, on a trip to the park, he happens upon the lovely young widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her four boisterous sons. The sparks of a great friendship are struck, and Barrie is soon spending most of his time inventing fantastic games to amuse the boys. In the midst of these games and stories Barrie finds the inspiration for what will become his greatest work - "Peter Pan" - the story of a boy who never grows up. And though the cold realities of social stigma, illness and loss soon intrude on the idyllic picture, Barrie proves that to face up to the adult world does not mean turning your back on the children's one.
"Finding Neverland", a work of subtle power and singular brilliance, is easily one of the finest films of the year. Not only does it offer a fresh and fascinating insight into the well-worn tale of "Peter Pan', it magnifies this insight into an exploration of creativity, society, love and loss. What's more it manages all this without sacrificing its irresistible sense of fun.
Much of the film's brilliance rests on the well-crafted screenplay. Though it allows us some wonderful glimpses into the fantastic world of Barrie's imagination, it never allows these glimpses to overwhelm the plot. By rooting the movie in the real world, these glimpses are made all the more significant and powerful. This rootedness allows the movie to be far more than just another interpretation of "Peter Pan" - instead it becomes an exploration of why that story has such powerful resonance with people across the globe.
The film's unexpected realism is made more convincing by gentle, naturalistic dialogue and by superb costume and art direction. The filmmakers seem intent on ensuring that nothing gets in the way of the story - and all of the visual and verbal details of the film are designed to blend seamlessly rather than leap out and be noticed. That's not to say that these details aren't all flawless - they are - but they are never allowed to be more than a backdrop for the real action.
Of course the realism wouldn't be possible without a cast talented enough to understand the script's delicate nuances and patient enough to make the most of them. Johnny Depp, in particular, resists the urge to play up Barrie's eccentricities and reduce the character to a caricature. Both Depp and the filmmakers realize that Barrie wasn't a madcap prankster or wild haired fantasist - he was a softly spoken, shy and rather reserved man. In many ways he was the opposite of his most famous creation. The film shows us that Barrie was the mould from which Peter Pan emerged - and that character was the embodiment of Barrie's deep and unfulfilled longings.
In the balancing act between Barrie's public and private personas Depp finds and exploits a rich vein of creative tension. He gives us the sense that beneath his reserved exterior is the boy that never grew up, and that beneath that boy is the young man who knew his boyhood was over the day his mother died. As Depp expertly manipulates these layers of persona, Barrie's character is made vivid and tangible. Depp has made a career out of playing eccentrics, but he has rarely invested them with half the complexity that he gives to Barrie.
Yet Depp would never have managed his performance without a brilliant supporting cast to act as a foil for his character. The always convincing Kate Winslet excels as Sylvia, but it is young Freddie Highmore who really shines in his role of Peter Llewelyn Davies. Peter, the most troubled of Sylvia's boys, is unable to forgive the world for taking his father from him. His anger and fear have driven him to forsake his childhood and live in the "real world". When Barrie arrives on the scene, Peter is dismissive of his games and stories, denouncing them as pointless and baseless. But Barrie slowly works his way past Peter's defences, and watching their relationship grow is one of the great joys of the film.
Another great joy is watching Barrie's games with the boys. In a feat of cinematographic brilliance, the film interweaves the imaginary world with reality in a way that makes both seem utterly fantastic. Instead of transporting us wholesale into a remote and unattainable Neverland, we are given a sense that Neverland is always there, just below the surface.
"Finding Neverland" is not an easy film to watch. Though it is, at times, delightful it is also tragic. Like "Peter Pan" the movie speaks to longings inside all of us, longings for eternal youth, adventure, love and freedom from mundane cares. But unlike "Peter Pan", those longings remain largely unfulfilled and the film recognizes that they never will be. And it is here that we find the film's true genius - that despite this recognition we never stop believing in Neverland.- By Alistair Fairweather
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