Ticking Crocodile: Finding Neverland

Johnny Depp and Freddie Highmore in Finding Neverland (Miramax)

Although made by a Swiss director and filmed in England with a predominantly British cast, Finding Neverland suggests the comforts of an idealized Thanksgiving morning. Both a parade and a feast, the movie has the look and feel of an instant holiday classic. I could watch it every Thanksgiving from here ‘til eternity, see it become as much a tradition as cranberries and stuffing, yet never tire of the film’s fantastical gaze into dark material.

A fictional account of how J.M. Barrie came to write Peter Pan, Neverland features great performances by Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, and child actor Freddie Highmore, as well as a largely improvised, dryly comic turn from Dustin Hoffman, who pops up now and again as the theatrical impresario Charles Frohman. Hoffman and Depp’s scenes together in rehearsals or auditions, inspired as they were by Hoffman’s experiences of working with Arthur Miller, are light, pleasingly satiric bits about life in the theatre. It’s a joy to watch actors as dissimilar as Depp and Hoffman so at ease with, so relishing each other’s company that they seem perfectly natural as business partners.

The movie follows four fatherless brothers who will in time lose their widowed mother (Winslet, fetchingly lovely from the first turn of her straw hat) to cancer. Along the way, they befriend the eccentric author J.M. Barrie (Depp). David Magee’s astutely observed screenplay mixes tones of fun and games, of rapture, and risk and loss. Blending these shades of light into dark extraordinarily well is the film’s director, Marc Forster. Forster has taste; he isn’t a cartoon vulgarian of the Tim Burton ilk.

Last August, I spoke with Forster when he visited Seattle to promote the film, and our conversation appears at AlterNet’s Movie Mix. While we cover much ground there, I have still a few more sketches.

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Depp, as Barrie, speaks with an authentic Scottish brogue. The delicacy Depp brings to his lilting accent makes him the opposite of, say, Meryl Streep, with her show-off, hack techniques. He’s refreshingly honest here, understated; he fully inhabits the playwright’s skin.

The four young actors who play the Llewelyn Davis boys (Freddie Highmore, Nick Roud, Luke Spill, and Joe Prospero) are all quite good, perhaps none more so than Highmore in the largest, most complex role as Peter. Playing a game of cowboys and Indians, Barrie, in the innocence of make believe, says to Peter, “I take you as my own son,” and Highmore, a nerve exposed, shouts, “You’re not my father!” Peter eventually tries his hand at writing a play, and before presenting it to his mentor Barrie, he equivocates, “This is just a bit of silliness, really.” There may be no warmer example of Neverland’s compassionate humor than when Barrie replies, “I should hope so.”

Words must be said for how well the film surveys the despondency of Barrie’s wife, Mary Ansell, a woman who yearns for her husband to take her “where brilliant ideas float around like leaves in autumn.” Radha Mitchell—if you’ve seen her play the lead role in Forster’s earlier film Everything Put Together, you already know she’s one of the screen’s most undervalued talents—brings genuine empathy to Mary, a woman whose marriage hems in her isolation. Neither her physical nor intellectual passions are fed; her husband’s childlike persona puts a crimp into her social-climbing as well. The cinematographer Roberto Schaefer achieves one of many fine images when he frames Mary in a window that reflects a neighboring brick wall as if it were imposed over her.

I do have a couple of complaints. Although the costume designer Alexandra Byrne performs splendidly overall (Depp’s dapper suits are exquisite) she outfits Christie in the same grey taffeta buttoned waistcoat with a lace collar in three different scenes—couldn’t the costume department have done more for the lady? And a maudlin pop song by Elton John befouls the ending credits. After we have marveled at production designer Gemma Jackson’s 1904 London and the creature-filled paradise of Neverland, Elton’s shriekingly contemporary schmaltz spoils the mood. The music should have been more in keeping with the era.

To end on a higher note, Finding Neverland gives the octogenarian Eileen Essell the gift of succinctly naming this movie’s underlying obsession: “It’s all the work of the ticking crocodile,” Essell’s widow Mrs. Snow remarks at Peter Pan’s premiere. “Time is chasing after all of us.” — NPT

November 11, 2004

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