Don't be fooled by the pirate drag Johnny Depp wears in the transporting Finding Neverland. There is no sign of campy Captain Jack in this low-key and lyrical take on Scottish author J.M. Barrie, the odd duck who created Peter Pan. Depp's soulful intensity as Barrie -- a performance steeped in gentle humor and inexpressible sorrow -- is the polar opposite of his turn in Pirates of the Caribbean. Depp won his first Oscar nomination for swanning through that blockbuster; he deserves at least as much for playing Barrie with the grace notes that mark an actor at the top of his game.
Finding Neverland is glorious entertainment. It shimmers with the promise of enchantment that lost boy Peter Pan brought to the earthbound Darling children (Wendy, Michael and John) when he sprinkled them with fairy dust and flew them off to Neverland. But it's the lost boy in Barrie, conveyed by Depp without sugarcoating, that counts.
Directed by Marc Forster (Monster's Ball), this Edwardian period piece picks up in 1903, when Barrie's play Little Mary flops in London. His producer (a solid Dustin Hoffman) isn't worried. But Barrie is. At home, he takes little comfort in his childless marriage to Mary, played by the beautiful Radha Mitchell with a gathering frost. But there is sexual heat in Mary. The deft script by David Magee (from a play by Allan Knee) even hints at an affair. Still, Barrie isn't responding to her fire.
Sexuality hovers on the edge of this movie, as if afraid to enter and spoil the family fun. Was Barrie impotent, asexual or a bit too interested in little boys? No truck is given to the pedophile rumors that might have turned this Neverland into the Michael Jackson version. The plot kicks in when Barrie meets young widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet, a radiant force of nature). Her vitality attracts him. But the magnet is her four sons: Michael (Luke Spill), George (Nick Roud), Jack (Joe Prospero) and Peter (Freddie Highmore). Soon Barrie is indulging in their games. The film sparks with comic life, and Peter Pan is born.
Then Sylvia develops a cough. You can guess the rest. But Forster's film is magical, not mush. It helps to have Julie Christie around as Sylvia's mother, a ramrod who doesn't know what business Barrie has falling in love with her family. Too late; we've fallen too. When Barrie brings the cast of Peter Pan to do a private performance for the ailing Sylvia at her home, dry eyes will be at a premium. Barrie's conversations with Sylvia's son Peter -- the solemn little boy who can't accept his father's death -- are wonderfully touching thanks to the interplay between Depp and Highmore, a child actor of extraordinary gifts. "I'm not Peter Pan -- he is," says the boy as Depp's face becomes a window into Barrie's soul. It's too early to speculate on how Depp, 41, will grow as an actor. Based on Finding Neverland, it's not too early to call him a great one.
"Finding Neverland" is the story of a man who doesn't want to grow up, and writes the story of a boy who never does. The boy is Peter Pan, and the man is Sir J.M. Barrie, who wrote his famous play after falling under the spell of a widow and her four young boys. That Barrie was married at the time, that he all but ignored his wife, that he all but moved into the widow's home, that his interest in the boys raised little suspicion, would make this story play very differently today. Johnny Depp's performance makes Barrie not only believable, but acceptable. And he does it without evading the implications of his behavior: The movie doesn't inoculate Barrie as a "family friend," but shows him truly and deeply in love with the widow and her boys, although in an asexual way; we wonder, indeed, if this man has ever had sex, or ever wants to.
The movie opens in 1903 in a London theater where Barrie, a Scottish playwright, has seen his latest play turn into a disaster. He needs something new, and quickly, because his impresario (Dustin Hoffman) has a lease on the house and needs to keep it filled. In Kensington Gardens, Barrie happens upon the Davies family: the mother, Sylvia (Kate Winslet), and her boys Peter, George, Jack and Michael. As he watches them at play, a kind of spiritual hunger begins to glow in his eyes. They represent an innocence and purity that strikes him so powerfully he's unable to think of anything else.
He becomes friendly with the family. Sylvia has recently become widowed and is not interested in a new romance, but then, curiously, nothing about Barrie's behavior suggests he's attracted to her in that way. He idealizes her, he obsesses about her boys, and when he talks about his own unhappy childhood we get a glimpse of his motivation; when his older brother died, his parents started calling him by the brother's name, and perhaps he felt he lived his brother's childhood and never had his own.
He plays games with the boys. He wrestles with a big stuffed bear. He leads them in games involving pirates and cowboys and Indians. He dresses in funny costumes. The children like him and Sylvia is grateful for his attention, especially since she has developed an alarming cough and he helps take care of the boys. The only holdout is Peter, played by Freddie Highmore in a remarkable
performance; if Barrie never grew up, Peter was perhaps never a child. He is wise and solemn, feels the loss of his father more sharply than his brothers, and boldly tells Barrie: "You're not my father." Nor does Barrie want to be; he wants to be his brother. Sylvia's condition worsens, and when the boys stage a play in the
family garden, it's cut short by her coughing. The boys are reassured that nothing serious is wrong, but Peter is sure they're lying to him about her illness: "I won't be made a fool!"
Two other women regard this situation with alarm. Barrie's wife Mary (Radha Mitchell) rarely sees him at home and is understandably disturbed about his relationship with the Davies family, although she is not as angry as she might be; there is the implication that she has long since given up on expecting rational behavior from her husband. He lives in a dream world, and to some degree she understands that. Not as sympathetic is Emma du Maurier (Julie Christie), Sylvia's mother, who as the widow of the famous George du Maurier moved in sophisticated circles and is not amused by a 43-year-old man who wants to become the best playmate of her grandchildren.
It is Barrie's innocence, or naivete, or perhaps even a kind of rapture, impervious to common sense, that steers him past all obstacles as he begins to form the idea of "Peter Pan" in his mind. The boys are his muses. He tries to explain his new play to his impresario, who has just closed one flop, doesn't want to open another, and is less than thrilled about a play involving fairies, pirates, and children who can fly. Depp in his scenes shows Barrie in the grip of a holy zeal, his mind operating on a private, almost trance-like level, as the play comes into focus for him. He knows, if nobody else does, that he is creating a myth that will powerfully involve children. His masterstroke is to invite 25 orphans to the play's opening night and scatter them through the audience, where their laugher and delight stirs the adults to see the magic in the play.
For Depp, "Finding Neverland" is the latest in an extraordinary series of performances. After his Oscar nomination for "Pirates of the Caribbean" (2003), here is another role that seems destined for nomination. And then think of his work in "Secret Window" (2004), the Stephen King story about the author caught in a nightmare, and his demented CIA agent in "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" (2003), and wait until you see him in "The Libertine," as the depraved and shameless Earl of Rochester. That the flamboyance of his pirate and the debauchery of the Earl could exist in the same actor as the soft-spoken, gentle, inward J.M. Barrie is remarkable. It is commonplace for actors to play widely differing roles, but Depp never makes it feel like a reach; all of these notes seem well within his range.
"Finding Neverland" is, finally, surprisingly moving. The screenplay by David Magee (based on Allan Knee's play) and the direction of Marc Forster ("Monster's Ball") manipulate the facts to get their effect; Sylvia's husband was still alive in the original story, for example, and her illness had not taken hold. But by compressing events, the movie creates for the Barrie character an opportunity for unconditional love. What he feels for the Davies family is disinterested and pure, despite all the appearances. What he feels for his wife remains a mystery, not least to her.