Finding Neverland (review)

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Creating Truths

Creative people get asked the question all the time: “Where do you get your ideas from?” It’s a question that mystifies creative people, who know that if we aren’t a million ideas behind, we’re doing something wrong: the problem isn’t finding ideas, it’s in stopping the flow in order to concentrate on just a few of them. Inspiration is everywhere, in all the places we go and in all the people we meet… and I’ve never seen a film capture that sense of being immersed in one’s own imagination better than Finding Neverland does.
Oh, but this is a magical film, one that transports us not only to another, more delightful, place and time — an Edwardian England that’s slightly idealized, heightened in its charm and refinement — but to within the vivid flights of fancy of a writer whose fantastical inventions — Neverland, Peter Pan, Captain Hook, Tinkerbell — continue to mesmerize us and speak to us today, a century later. (The first version of Peter Pan — J.M. Barrie continued to revise it — had its West End debut on December 27, 1904.) This isn’t the precisely true story of how Barrie was moved to write the play, but it does, perhaps even more appropriately to the themes it explores, take its inspiration from reality. David Magee’s wonderfully perceptive script, loosely based on Allan Knee’s play, finds the larger truths in Barrie’s story, about the openness of mind and the willingness to daydream and the retention of a childlike perspective necessary to create the kinds of things that help the rest of the boring old grownup world recapture the sense of wonder they lost in the transition to respectable adulthood.

None of these larger truths will come as a newsflash to anyone who creates, or indeed to anyone who’s seen a few movies about creative people. It’s in the way they’re presented that takes your breath away and reduces you to blubbery tears of joy, like the unspeakably lovely moment of imagination taking literal/figurative flight as Barrie (a perfectly cast, and perfectly perfect, Johnny Depp: Secret Window, Once Upon a Time in Mexico) watches his young friends, the Llewelyn Davies boys, jumping on their beds one evening in exuberant preadolescent ecstasy. And with a seamless transition from reality to fantasy, they leap right out their bedroom window as if they were flying off to the yet-to-be-concocted Neverland, courtesy of the pixie dust of Barrie’s whimsy. I’d not have expected such playfulness and lightness of touch from director Marc Forster, who last gave us the ponderous, overserious Monster’s Ball, but there it is, again and again: Barrie’s games with the boys of cowboys and Indians or pirates shift effortlessly from the park or the back garden to a stylized Hollywood-backlot Old West town or a hilariously florid high-seas sailing ship.

If the pirate scenes can’t help but act as a bookend with Depp’s Pirates of the Caribbean performance, that’s fine, because it only serves as a reminder that this is an actor who has never let grownup inhibitions restrain him — he gives an all, always and particularly here, that combines the exhilaration of a child at play with an adult melancholy that comes from being profoundly aware of the fleetingness of moments of unbound joy. At a quick first glance, it might appear that Depp’s Barrie, a man prone to dancing with his dog, is more of a child than nine-year-old Peter Llewelyn Davies (Freddie Highmore: Two Brothers, The Mists of Avalon), who’s retreated into quiet solemnity after the recent death of his father. But it’s the wistful adult in Barrie who knows how ephemeral is genuine childhood, because try as he might, he’ll never really recapture it himself, and in one quiet scene toward the end of the film, when he invites Peter to rejoin the world and reclaim his own young life, Depp may just about snatch the prize of Performance of the Year… with Highmore a close second.

I shan’t even get into the six-hankie drama of the illness of the Llewelyn Davies boys’ mother, played by Kate Winslet (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Life of David Gale) with her typical, glorious, earthy elegance, or her tender, heartbreaking platonic romance with Barrie. That moment with Depp and Highmore — tremulous and delicate, as fragile and as piercing as the child’s unexpressed grief — cuts as deep as any other on film this year. But more importantly, it speaks to a significance in Barrie’s mindset, in the creative mindset in general, that goes beyond the ability to paint pretty pictures or tell entertaining stories: it sees both sides of the story, the child’s and the adult’s, and knows how desperately important it is to give up neither one.

Watch Finding Neverland online using LOVEFiLM’s streaming service.

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