‘Finding Neverland’ is the rare film which has pitch-perfect acting and writing
[rating=4]Starring: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Dustin Hoffman
Director(s): Marc Forster
Writer(s): David Magee, based on the play by Allan Knee
Ahh, Los Angeles in January… It is a most glorious time of year when our attentions turn collectively to Awards Season©. It is a time when Variety and The Hollywood Reporter do their best work, serving as mere staples for a throng of “For Your Consideration” studio ads.
As there is no subject on the planet that is more scrumptious than the self-indulgent doling out of Hollywood statuettes, I’ve decided that this review of Finding Neverland shall be the first article in a series that will cover the major films likely to be talked about and scrutinized throughout the Awards Season© at water coolers all around the Fly-Over States.
Finding Neverland is a rare film that beautifully if not flawlessly tows the line between genuine heart and saccharine sentimentality. Pitch perfect acting and writing throughout the film elevate it to an extraordinary level, well beyond where it could have easily fallen at the hands of lesser talents. A film like this, one that deals with real people, their lives and deaths, is so often portrayed with such overly manipulated drama such that the audience is beaten down with every emotion as if we had the intelligence of a brain dead otter. See Patch Adams for reference. Finding Neverland avoids those bio-pic landmines with panache and ease, and is in singular company as the second best movie of 2004.
At its core, Finding Neverland is the pseudo-biographical account of J.M Barrie, and his journey into the imagination that ultimately led him to write Peter Pan. We meet Barrie, performed exquisitely by Johnny Depp, in the real world of London as a playwright who needs a hit, and as a husband who might need for some marriage counseling. Soon, on a jaunt to break his writer’s block, he is introduced to the Davies kids and their loving but ill widowed mother, Sylvia, played consummately by the radiant Kate Winslet.
With the aid of the children’s inherent grand imaginations, Barrie’s spirit breathes life into the Davies’ world. This essence most noticeably pervades into Peter Davies, the child who doesn’t trust adults, and is in due course the direct inspiration for Pan. Barrie’s introduction into the Davies’ family proves to be instrumental in saving the imagination (and therefore lives) of Barrie and Sylvia. As he spends time with the family, Barrie pieces together the story and characters for Peter Pan. Some of these moments and realizations are truly inspired, albeit a bit set up. In the end, imagination is replaced by love as the saving grace of humanity. As a sentence like that, it looks horribly maudlin, but believe that in the film it is done with such subtlety it is undeniably beautiful.
For a film that is so deeply rooted in the significance of the imagination, it is amazing how brilliantly it pulls of the very sober and very real emotions of human life. Barrie’s professional and personal lives are complicated; neither his marriage nor his writing are going well. Sylvia Davies, as a widower, single mother of three, and seriously ill woman is in a constant internal struggle; she has a house and family to attend to in good spirits, and as such cannot afford the luxury of melancholy nor illness. The time Barrie and Sylvia spend together is a genuine respite for both characters. Another entire facet to the reality Finding Neverland brings is that of the writer’s journey. Rarely if ever has there been a portrayal of a writer’s creative struggle and path so rich and accurate. How many of us have read something and uttered, “How in the world did he come up with this?” Not that this answers that question with any sense of accuracy, but it does pose possibilities that are fantastic. On some level, it restores faith to writers everywhere that inspiration is as close as you’ll allow it to be.
Without overtly pulling strings, Finding Neverland pulls off the near impossible. It is a fine story on which to hang fantastic writing and even more brilliant acting. For a film that could so easily have become sappy hokum, Finding Neverland finds itself in a rarified stratum as one of the best films of the year.
As much as I respected and enjoyed Finding Neverland, it was released in the same year as another film, which, in almost every category, steals its sunshine. I would give Finding Neverland the award for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress (Winslet). She is getting two statues at my ceremony. Sadly, Johnny Depp, who turns in a brilliant performance, will find that this is not his year at the real Hollywood awards, nor here in these.
Run Time: 1 hr., 46 mins.