Finding Neverland Review
London, 1904. Scottish playwright, J.M.Barrie (Depp) watches from the wings as a first night audience of the great and good react apathetically to his new play. He knows he’s not producing his best work, but is blocked. The next morning, in Kensington Gardens, he and his dog encounter the Llewellyn-Davies family: widowed mother Sylvia (an under-utilised Winslet), and her sons George (Nick Roud), Jack (Joe Prospero), Michael (Luke Spill), and Peter (Freddie Highmore).
Barrie charms and dazzles the children – and their mother – with his flights of fancy, being more like a child himself, but the wounded, introverted Peter refuses to join in. ‘Its only a dog’ he comments, scathingly, when Barrie dances with an imaginary bear. Nevertheless, Barrie meets the family regularly and soon becomes an integral part of their lives. Through his time spent with the boys – playing pirates, flying kites – Barrie’s imagination comes back to life and he is inspired to create the story of Peter Pan. The play is a massive hit, but Barrie’s conduct has scandalised Edwardian London and driven his unhappy wife (Mitchell) away. Barrie has to make some tough decisions.
Loosely based on facts, Finding Neverland has some outstanding qualities – in a Heat-style, ‘What’s Good?’ column the pluses are the performances of Johnny Depp and Freddie Highmore. Johnny turns in a surprisingly restrained performance and his light Scottish accent is easy on the ear. Freddie Highmore as the tragic Peter is amazing. I swear, when the kid started crying I started crying, he’s that good. But the reason for the average star rating is that, ironically, in a film about the power of imagination, the film-makers seemed to have very little.
I always prefer to read a book before I see a film, so that I can have my own images in my head. And that, I think, is how I felt about the way imagination was depicted in Finding Neverland. Neverland, the country, should be like Middle Earth, like Narnia – a magical kingdom, utterly fantastic – not a pedestrian, dark, jungly place with a single lonely crocodile and some really rubbishy looking fairies! If Marc Foster (Monster’s Ball) didn’t have the budget for decent effects then I’d preferred him to show less and suggest more. As it was, I didn’t want to go to Neverland, or care much about its inhabitants.
The film was more interesting in showing the creative process but again was too literal in its approach. Sylvia is trying to get the boys to go to bed; as Barrie watches they jump on their beds, and in his mind he sees them bounce off the beds and fly out of the window. Very nice. But that’s exactly what we see on the screen. So NOTHING is left to the imagination, instead we have a+b leads to c, directly. I don’t know how it could have been done differently, but I would have preferred to see the children bouncing on the beds, and then later seen the scene in the play, and made the leap myself. After all, is there anyone in the Western World who hasn’t read or seen Peter Pan in one of its many many incarnations?
Despite my nitpicking, Finding Neverland is an enjoyable film, though not really a children’s film, dealing as it does with death, and quite a good one to take your parents to, as there’s no swearing or violence. But I couldn’t help feeling a nagging sense of disappointment.
Oh, if you think what happens to the doomed Llewellyn Davies boys in the film is sad… George died in World War I, Michael drowned himself in the 1920s and Peter committed suicide in 1960.
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