The Pan Behind the Curtain

Neverland raises the curtain on J.M. Barrie — but not too much

click to enlarge ESCAPE ARTIST: Depp's Barrie offers respite to - his charges from the tightly wound society of - Victorian London. - MIRAMAX FILMS
ESCAPE ARTIST: Depp's Barrie offers respite to his charges from the tightly wound society of Victorian London.

Don't hate it because it's beautiful. Finding Neverland is another one of those toned and sparkly Miramax jobs that always seem to arrive right around the holidays, filled with gorgeous costumes, posh English accents and much ado about curtains. We're talking plush, deep red uber-curtains, by the way (the plusher and redder the better), the kind that hang down over stages in grand palaces of artifice, and rise or part to reveal the performance to the audience. In art-film parlance, curtains like these are nothing less than gateways from one world to another.

There are curtains everywhere in Finding Neverland — the movie even opens with them — practically beating us over the heads with The Great Cross-Pollination of Life and Art that's been such a favorite topic (and proven money-maker) for indie filmmakers since Shakespeare in Love. Life is a stage and the stage is life and yadda yadda yadda, as movies like Finding Neverland are forever reminding us, so on with the show.

Art imitates life and takes a few liberties in the process in the unflappably tasteful Finding Neverland. From the quasi-cerebral art/life parallels to the classy, big-name cast (Johnny Depp, Julie Christie, Dustin Hoffman) to the impeccable production values (this is a movie where everybody dresses for dinner) to the gently uplifting tone, Neverland would appear to be a carefully calculated amalgamation of just about everything that appeals to Academy Awards voters.

But like I said, don't hate Finding Neverland just because it's beautiful. As it turns out, the movie is somewhat more than the sum of its pretty parts. Once we get past our preconceived notions of what Finding Neverland will be — expectations that the movie doesn't dash so much as gently massage into another shape — the film reveals itself as a wispy but surprisingly agreeable experience. Don't go looking for more and you'll do just fine.

The central player strutting and fretting upon the stage of life in Finding Neverland is J.M. Barrie (an unusually subdued Depp), the popular, early-20th-century playwright best known for gifting the world with Peter Pan. Barrie's beloved opus is just a twinkle in his eye as Finding Neverland unfolds, but it's a twinkle that's never far from our line of sight. The movie is a romance, of sorts, and a coming-of-age tale to boot, but it's also structured as an elaborate parlor game in which writer David Magee and director Mark Forster constantly tease us with the bits from Barrie's life that served as inspiration for his classic-to-be about a boy who refused to grow up.

Central among these inspirations is Barrie's relationship with the five young sons of a widow by the name of Sylvia Llewellyn Davies (Kate Winslet, herself no stranger to high-gloss epics, at least when she's not doffing her duds in some gnarly little art flick). For what it's worth, the real-life Mrs. Llewellyn Davies wasn't actually widowed when she first met Barrie, but that little tweaking of history allows the movie to make Barrie into a meatier father surrogate to the boys and makes our hero's unspoken affection for Winslet's character all the more poignant. The movie whitewashes several other facts of Barrie's life, too — including the whiffs of pedophilia suggested by some biographers, and the possibility that at least some of the Llewellyn Davies children were themselves unable to resist the dark side (two of them later committed suicide, a historical aside you won't find anywhere in the vicinity of this film).

But Finding Neverland is a movie designed to lift spirits, not dash them, and, as the film would have it, the relationship between Barrie and the youngsters was pure as the driven snow and mutually beneficial to all. For the J.M. Barrie (James to his friends) depicted in Neverland, the association with the Davies brood allows him to locate his inner child and provides him with an artistic muse, as well as an escape from his suffocating marriage to a beautiful but shallow social climber. For the kids, "Uncle James'" companionship offers a father figure of sorts and a chance to blow off some steam in the tightly wound society of Victorian London.

It's best to put history out of your mind, then, as we watch Barrie and the boys indulging themselves in an essentially happy-go-lucky world of imagination, manifested as a series of whimsical fantasy interludes in which everyone transforms into cowboys, Indians, circus performers and pirates. These fantasies blend with the movie's version of real life, and it all eventually crystallizes as Peter Pan, from a killjoy aunt who's the spitting image of Captain Hook to the youngest Llewellyn Davies brother who, mixed with a bit of Barrie, serves as the model for Peter Pan himself.

Marc Forster, a talented director previously responsible for the much grittier Monster's Ball, coaches solid performances from the cast and layers Neverland with pleasing symmetries, wit and moments that make good on a clear intention to appear "magical." The last act is awash in tears and near-tragedies (when the heroine develops a nagging cough in a movie like this we can practically see the tunnel at the end of the light), but everyone puts on a brave face.

In the end, there's nothing really too messy or troublesome about Finding Neverland and, frankly, the film could have stood a few hearty complications in keeping with the facts of Barrie's life. What we get instead is pleasing enough but a bit too pre-digested to take completely seriously, right down to a grand finale where the realm referred to in the film's title is revealed as a Paradise Found of wee fairies conjuring up the spirit of eternal youth for terminally ill grown-ups. It's a place splendid enough to melt the iciest heart, and guaranteed to summon up high-quality tears glistening like a little gold statue just behind Billy Crystal's head.

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