Not since David Lynch decided to follow up Lost Highway with The Straight Story has a director made as severe an aesthetic U-turn as Marc Forster does with Finding Neverland, his first feature since 2001’s rigorous indie grief-a-thon Monster’s Ball. Those seeking shots of P. Diddy in an electric chair or orgasmic shrieks of “Make me feel good!” can look elsewhere. Even with the notoriously weird Peter Pan scribe J.M. Barrie as the subject, Finding Neverland is as optimistic and apple-cheeked as Monster’s Ball was depressive and sallow.
That’s not altogether a bad thing. Finding Neverland keeps its focus narrow — the months it took the Scottish playwright Barrie to create and stage the first production of Peter Pan. It never pretends to be about anything more than the inspiration Barrie (Johnny Depp) took from consumptive young widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her sprightly sons. However, the film glosses over such unsavory topics as Barrie’s fear of being touched, the widespread accusations of pedophilia leveled against him, or the coincidentally tragic deaths met by some of Sylvia’s boys years later.
Yet the film doesn’t feel like a cheat, the way A Beautiful Mind might have seemed to viewers who knew of the messier aspects of John Forbes Nash’s life.
Forster and his cast sidestep the script’s Cliffs Notes tendencies in favor of a restrained, subtle emotionalism. Depp never allows himself to lapse into precious goofiness or scenery chewing (the way he might have when he was younger), and Winslet smartly plays down any passion between her character and the elusive, unhappily married Barrie. This is, above all, a movie about a would-be surrogate father, and the film’s ultimate success hinges upon Depp’s effortless rapport with the children who play Sylvia’s boys. Particularly notable is the gifted Freddie Highmore, whose every action seems natural and unforced (Highmore’s chemistry with Depp in this film led to his casting as Willy Wonka in Tim Burton’s much-anticipated Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).
The flights-of-fantasy sequences that illustrate Barrie’s rampant imagination are elegant and tasteful, but more impressive are the detailed recreations of Peter Pan’s opening night: Forster conveys a palpable sense of what it must have been like to see that first curtain rise. If there were still some doubt after Monster’s Ball, this film proves that the young filmmaker has already overcome the most dreaded of indie-hotshot curses — the tendency to let showy camera moves and trendy style get in the way of great performances.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].