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"Finding Neverland" is a limpidly emotional heart-tugger about the pleasures and tragedies of eternal youth, as imagined and lived by James M. Barrie, the man who wrote "Peter Pan."
This movie biobased on Allan Knee's play "The Man Who Was Peter Pan" and adapted with fluent intelligence by David Mageeis about grown-up Barrie, retreating back to the joys of childhood before facing the pains of maturity. Directed with real feeling and sometimes delectable visual style by Marc Forster ("Monster's Ball"), the film explores Barrie's relationship with the Llewelyn Davies family, a mother and four sons, who help inspire the original play after Barrie meets them by chance in London's Kensington Gardens.
"Finding Neverland" begins with the resounding failure of Barrie's previous play, then glides into the exhilarating bond he establishes with mother Sylvia Davies (Kate Winslet) and her sons. That is the connection that leads to the first production of "Peter Pan" in London in December 1904.
It's an intellectual family film for literate parents and children, immensely pleasing if not perfect, perhaps a smidgen too brightly evasive and determinedly charming. But it does have the perfect actor for Barrie: Johnny Depp, who can play a child-man without seeming effete or precious and who here delightfully re-creates Barrie as a whimsical Edwardian dandy in impeccably elegant waistcoats. With his bright boyish eyes and virile gentleness, Depp turns himself into a real-life Pan: an unself-consciously playful fellow who never quite grew up but still feels the pain of those who did.
You can't imagine a better movie Barrie. Even if Depp is American and larger than his boy-tall Scottish subject, the absolute ease and empathy with which he plays this part guide us smoothly into the tale's emotional thickets. Depp expertly plays off the sunniness and shadow of the story and so do Forster and Mageethough they never make the psychology too dark or deep. (There are no sexual speculations of any kind in this PG movie.)
We can understand, though, why the film's Barrie, locked in an unsatisfying marriage with a beautiful but over-practical wife (Radha Mitchell's chilly but affecting Mary Ansell Barrie) would flee into this fantasy family he creates with a beleaguered, fragile mother and her robust boysespecially the actual Pan model, Peter (Freddie Highmore). And we can also see why some would react with skepticism, including Sylvia's frosty upper-class mother, Emma du Maurier (Julie Christie) of the celebrated literary Du Mauriers.
The film, like Barrie, keeps sadness at bay at first, plunging us instead into Barrie's attempts, with the aid of his supportive American producer Charles Frohmann (Dustin Hoffman) to recover from the unexpected failure in his prolific playwriting career, and then into the sheer wayward joy of his friendship with the Llewelyn Davies brood. A few dark presentiments seep in, largely at first though the stern reactions of Emma.
Then the sadness floods over us, commingling with the excitement of "Pan's" premiere and a re-creation of Barrie's special home presentation of "Peter Pan" for the ailing Sylvia, a scene that should leave few dry eyes in any house.
Forster made his name in "Monster's Ball" with what seems an entirely different kind of movie, a raw and unabashedly sexy slice of realistic American Southern Gothic. But there's a common thread here, another relationship that disrupts a family. Forster directs "Neverland" equally well, with just as much heart, passion and humanity, and more subtlety.
"Finding Neverland" has a radiance that comes primarily from Depp's performance but finally suffuses the whole moviewith its marvelous cast and lovingly created images of a British Edwardian past that, in part because of Peter Pan and Wendy, is lodged affectionately in many constant readers' hearts. This is a movie especially for readers and literary devotees. It's also a film for theater-lovers, Anglophiles, bright childrenand the adults who left Neverland but, like Barrie, sometimes envy the ones who stayed.
Directed by Marc Forster; written by David Magee; photographed by Roberto Schaefer; edited by Matt Chesse; production designed by Gemma Jackson; music by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek; produced by Richard N. Gladstein, Nellie Bellflower. A Miramax release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:56. MPAA rating: PG.
Sir James Matthew Barrie - Johnny Depp
Sylvia Llewelyn Davies - Kate Winslet
Mrs. Emma du Maurier - Julie Christie
Charles Frohman - Dustin Hoffman
Mary Ansell Barrie - Radha Mitchell
"Peter Pan" - Kelly Macdonald
Peter Llewelyn Davies - Freddie Highmore
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - Ian Hart