Quiet emotions run deep in “Finding Neverland,” an impeccably made and genuinely moving account of how Scottish author J.M. Barrie came to write “Peter Pan.” Based on people and events that have been maneuvered in a way to evoke the sources of inspiration for one of the enduring classics of the last century, Marc Forster’s astutely judged follow-up to “Monster’s Ball” is the rare modern film that, like Hollywood fare of the classic studio era, can play well to all age groups. It also will reduce many viewers to tears, which, along with a stellar cast led by Johnny Depp, gives Miramax plenty to work with in positioning the picture as a remunerative, classy late-year release.
With the flop of last Christmas’ elaborate “Peter Pan” not yet forgotten, “Finding Neverland” offers the public something different. Most importantly, there is Depp’s delicate and inviting portrait of an unusual man, a celebrated playwright of the Edwardian era whose own refusal to abandon his childlike instincts allowed him to create a fantasy about a boy who didn’t want to grow up.
Then there’s the rare success of David Magee’s screenplay, based on Allan Knee’s play “The Man Who Was Peter Pan,” in making the life of a writer not only interesting but plausible in the connections made between life and work. The key here is Barrie’s chance encounter in Kensington Gardens with Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four young sons. Fresh off a West End flop in 1903, Barrie is looking for fresh ideas when he meets Sylvia, the daughter of artist and author George du Maurier and a recent widow, now quite overburdened.
Barrie starts playing games with the boys in the park and becomes intensely drawn to Sylvia. The odd woman out in this dynamic is Barrie’s beautiful wife, Mary (Radha Mitchell), whose tenuous connection to her husband is soon snapped by his new, albeit nonsexual alliance.
One of the pic’s minor flaws is its lack of inquiry into the nature of this marriage; one suspects there is a whole level to Barrie and his relations with women that must remain off-limits for various reasons.
Also put out by the growing affection between Barrie and Sylvia is the latter’s proper mother, Emma (Julie Christie), who views the attachment as not only socially incorrect but potentially destructive to all concerned.
Still, there is no stopping Barrie (who was 44 when he wrote “Peter Pan”) from pursuing his increasingly elaborate adventures with the boys, play that soon incorporates elements of cowboys and Indians and pirate escapades that work their way into his writing in key ways.
The film establishes confidence from the outset, as it deftly evokes the world of white-tie theatrical openings and a sophisticated artistic class, just as it nicely suggests Barrie’s daily routine, which involves working from a park bench in the company of his enormous dog.
Entirely opposed to contemporary convention, most of the dialogue is spoken in hushed, confidential tones, and this understatement contributes significantly to the slow burn of emotion that gathers in intensity through the film’s second half.
During a summer in the country, Sylvia develops a worrisome uncontrollable cough; when her hacking interrupts a garden performance of a play written, with Barrie’s encouragement, by her son Peter (Freddie Highmore), the latter angrily destroys the little set and rips up his manuscript, fearing his only remaining parent may be taken from him.
At the theater, Barrie’s producer, the American impresario Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman), frets along with the cast at the sheer oddness of the new play now in rehearsals about animals, Indians, pirates, fairies and flying kids.
Movie marketing and publicity types will especially appreciate the key detail in the depiction of the opening night of “Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up,” which took place Dec. 27, 1904. The playwright insisted 25 seats be set aside for his own use, and he filled them with children from a nearby orphanage. The kids’ quick and delighted laughter at the antics of Nana, the hulking dog in the play’s first scene, served to immediately disarm and quell the skepticism of the largely gray crowd, and the rest is history.
But the picture’s real climax comes afterward, at a private performance of the play for the benefit of the now seriously ailing Sylvia. Barrie’s devotion to her and her boys, along with his manner of revealing Neverland to her, is exceptionally touching; many moments of the film’s final stretch will have audiences welling up and blubbering away.
Forster’s directorial restraint has much to do with this, as do the performances of Depp, Winslet and little Highmore. Impeccably groomed and as boyishly handsome as ever, Depp takes a cue from the soft lilt of his beautifully rendered Scottish accent to create a gently nuanced portrayal of an artist who at least this once found a way to transform troubled reality into an imaginative work for the ages.
Winslet, who played Wendy onstage when she was 15, vibrantly brings both resilience and vulnerability to Sylvia, a woman whose early gifts in life are rapidly taken away. Christie, the epitome of carefree bohemianism in her youth, here goes effectively to the opposite extreme to stand for the strictest Victorian attitudes. Mitchell is the picture of a beauty in full flower who cannot be neglected for long. Hoffman spryly underplays the theatrical producer who shrewdly allows instinct to trump logic, and Highmore is crucially emotive and heartrending as the boy whose name Barrie took for his fictional creation.
Shot entirely in England, pic is aces in the craft areas, from Gemma Jackson’s warmly detailed production design and Alexandra Byrne’s resplendent costumes to Roberto Schaefer’s lustrous lensing and Jan A.P. Kaczmarek’s unobtrusively supportive score.
Only wrong note is struck by a silly Elton John-Bernie Taupin song clumsily pasted over the end credits, destroying the hard-won tenderness of pic’s closing moments. No matter the distinguished pedigree of the composition, it should go.