Finding Neverland

© 2004 Ray Wong

I don’t think there is a person in this world who does not know at least one thing about Peter Pan. But how much do we know about the man behind the story, and how he came about writing such a masterpiece? FINDING NEVERLAND takes us back to a time when a celebrated playwright was both celebrated and cursed for his endless imagination.

James Mathew Barrie (Depp) is a famous playwright in Edwardian England who is having a severe writer’s block, turning out yet another dud. The careless whispers camouflaged by polite nods further put Barrie in despair.

While trying to write at Kensington Gardens, he makes friends with the Davies family. Silvia Davies (Winslet) is a new widow with four inquisitive boys: Jack (Prospero), George (Roud), Michael (Spill) and the withdrawn Peter (Highmore).

Barrie quickly becomes a playmate to the Davies boys. Clearly he and Silva also develop some kind of mutual attraction, but their relationship remains strictly platonic. It doesn’t stop gossips from spreading: What would a married man want from a young, attractive widow? Even worse, what of the prepubescent boys? Silva’s mother, Emma du Maurier (Christie) becomes immensely concerned and interferes. To complicate matters, Barrie spends almost his entire waking hours with the Davies family, ignoring his socialite wife Mary (Mitchell).

Barrie tunes them all out; instead, his vivid imagination is unlocked by his muses. He realizes that he is a boy who doesn’t want to grow up. Peter Davies becomes his blueprint for the character of Peter Pan. His imagination takes him to Neverland. To the delight of his manager Frohman (Hoffman) and fans, Peter Pan becomes a hit. But Barrie’s marriage reaches a dead end, and soon Mary leaves him for another man.

When tragedy strikes the Davies family again, Barrie becomes the surrogate father, even though he struggles to remain childlike. But to the boys who are on the verge of becoming men, Barrie must do the right thing.

Depp (PIRATES OF CARIBBEAN) is affecting as J. M. Barrie. His performance is introspective, restrained, and understated, a direct contrast to the flamboyance of his Jack Sparrow in PIRATES. While I don’t think this is his strongest performance in recent years, he surely has proven again that he is one of the best actors of our times. Winslet (ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND) plays Silva as charming, warm and beautiful; she’s a joy to watch. Christie (TROY) is solid as the cold and strict grandmother du Maurier. Hoffman (MEET THE FOCKERS) and Mitchell (MAN ON FIRE) serve very well in their minor but important supportive role as Frohman and Mary Barrie respectively.

The boys are truly delightful. Prospero (INTIMACY) is charming as the oldest son Jack. Roud (ISLAND AT WAR) and newcomer Spill are good as George and Michael. The standout is Highmore (TWO BROTHERS) as the inspiration behind Peter Pan. His portrayal of the reluctant, defiant and sensitive Peter is heartbreaking. The last scene he has with Depp guarantees to draw tears.

Knee and Magee’s script is taut, compressing the events surrounding Barrie and the Davies to create dramatic conflicts and poignancy. The writers do, however, sidestep the real-life speculation and suspicions of Barrie’s sexuality -- that he might have been a pedophile, trapped in a sexless marriage. While Barrie’s intention with the Davies boys are called into question, there is no hint or talk of any sexual perversion. In a society where a slight misstep would garner ridicule and wild speculations, the reactions from the townsfolk seem somewhat tame.

Director Forster (MONSTER BALL) has a keen eye for nuanced drama. The pacing is languid but not dull. The performances are understated but emotionally weighty. The cinematography is lush but not pretentious. The camera movements are dramatic but not overbearing. His renditions of Barrie’s Neverland and the fantasy sequences are also true to the original play’s spirit, without using overt CGI. And that’s one true Neverland we’d like to find for ourselves -- you just have to believe.

Stars: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Radha Mitchell, Dustin Hoffman, Freddie Highmore, Joe Prospero, Nick Roud, Luke Spill
Director: Marc Forster
Writers: Alan Knee, David Magee
Distributor: Miramax
MPAA Rating: PG for themes and brief language


Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 8
Music/Sound– 8
Editing – 7
Production – 8

Total Score – 7.7 of 10

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