|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 22 March 2005|
The movie introduces us to James Barrie (Johnny Depp), a Scotsman living in London in 1903, when he is enjoying some success as a playwright even as his marriage to aspiring socialite Mary (Radha Mitchell) grows more unworkable by the day. On an outing to the park with his big dog, James encounters the widowed Sylvia Llewellyn-Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four young sons. James impulsively plays his part in the boys’ game of make-believe and is slowly captivated by the experience. Gradually, James, Sylvia and the boys befriend each other – the writer and the children are drawn together by their varied sense of invention and ability to make their imaginary worlds come to life, while the ailing Sylvia is warmed by the blossoming of her sons, who have largely shut down since their father’s death. Of course, the friendship of a married man and a widow with children doesn’t exactly go unnoticed – by Sylvia’s stern mother (Julie Christie), by society or by the increasingly threatened Mary. But for James, the joy of the experience trumps disapproval enough for him to translate it, in disguised form, into a story about a boy who wouldn’t grow up. Even as we see the logistics and hazards of producing a West End play with elements like waters, fairies and flight, all colossal headaches for James’ long-suffering producer (Dustin Hoffman), Sylvia’s health becomes more fragile and James’ relationship to the Llewellyn-Davies family becomes ever more crucial for all concerned.
“Finding Neverland” won an Oscar for Jan A.P. Kaczmarek’s delicate yet soaring score and was nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay, along with editing, costume design and art direction. It’s easy to understand why, even though – or, more accurately, precisely because – this isn’t the showiest of last year’s offerings. Director Marc Forster, screenwriter David Magee and leading man Depp all do a fairly amazing job of treading a line between whimsy, emotion and restraint that sustains a wonderful mood throughout, allowing us to travel into and out of various levels of reality along with James. A pirate adventure played on grass moves effortlessly into the characters’ minds on stagelike wooden waves that kick up real drenching spray; faeries fly through the air, wearing theatrical paint. The film evolves into a real tear-jerker, but it doesn’t feel overly manipulative, and there is a sense of droll humor rolling throughout.
Depp, doing a persuasive Scots accent, conveys the sense of an unusual agile yet still sane mind. Winslet does truly fine work, maternal with the children, responsive yet careful with Depp and beautifully calibrated opposite the formidable but still human Christie. Mitchell finds sympathy as the self-absorbed but honestly bewildered wife and Hoffman is wittily low-key as the impresario. The boys are all very natural and convincing. Unless one reads the credits and recognizes actor Ian Hart, it’s just about impossible to know that James’ supportive friend is meant to be Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but it’s a solid performance in any case.
“Finding Neverland” is beautiful to look at, but – in what may be a deliberate effect – the 2004 theatrical release looks a bit as though it was shot in the late ‘60s/’70s. Some scenes have beautiful color saturation, while others look very slightly faded. In Chapter 3, there’s the tiniest bit of bleed from a boy’s light hair into the white sky behind him. Sound effects and mix with the score are generally good, with some especially realistic effects during the destruction of a backyard theatre in Chapter 7, though the center and mains dominate. The rears primarily support what’s going on up front, though in sequences with opening night audiences, they supply some discrete crowd sounds.
The supplemental features here are enjoyable. The commentary by director Forster, screenwriter Magee and producer Richard N. Gladstein is agreeable, with discussion of the development process. The making-of featurette is pleasant if standard. “Creating Neverland,” a shorter look at some of the film’s special effects, is eye-opening, as it makes us aware of the extraordinary amount of work it takes to make it look as though all the elements simply exist together without us thinking twice about it in the final shot. “On the Red Carpet” features interviews with most of the cast and filmmakers – and Hilary Clinton! – at several of the film’s premieres and the outtakes reel is pretty funny, especially a sequence where, according to the onscreen notes, Depp was responsible for bringing in a hidden machine that makes unpredictable fart noises.
“Finding Neverland” is a lovely, involving film that displays the creativity of its own makers in a very well-done exploration of one man’s notable creative process.