Sunday, November 21, 2004

Reel To Reel:
Finding Neverland

How It Rates: ****
Starring: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet
Rated: PG
Red Flags: None, really, unless you count "graphic depiction of coughing."

Preconceived Notions: Strong buzz on this film. May be an Oscar contender.
The Bottom Line: Depp does it again in a highly-memorable two-hankie weeper.

In college, I had a drama professor who said Shakespeare was beamed to Earth by aliens in 1566 and told to become the greatest playright in the world. My professor was joking, of course, but he couldn't help concocting that theory given a popular entertainment of the time was bear baiting. How could somebody so eloquent and poetic emerge from such an environment?

I wondered the same thing about writer J.M. Barrie (Depp), author of Peter Pan, in early 1900's London -- a stiff, stuffy society consumed with class and manners. Barrie's imagination is running wild in a time where everybody is supposed to behave themselves. "Where are your manners?" we hear on more than one occasion.

As the film opens, Barrie's new play is opening to yawns. I couldn't really tell if it was supposed to be a comedy or a drama, but one thing's for sure -- it's boring. His producer, Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman), is eating the costs of failure and sucking it up in the British tradition of quiet desperation. But Barrie still needs to make a comeback.

He finds his inspiration in the rambunctious children of widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Winslet), whom he meets in the park while writing. Their imaginations jumpstart his, and he soon becomes a surrogate father to them, engaging in playtime fantasies like an overgrown child, many of which are dramatized with the help of CGI. This comes at the expense of his marriage, and with the smell of infidelity, and worse, raising eyebrows among proper English society.

Barrie's adventures with the young ones form the basis of Peter Pan. The title character's name, ironically, is drawn from the most unchildlike of the Davies children, a boy (Freddie Highmore) still scarred by the death of his father and unable to let his imagination flow like the others. For him, imagination is falsehood, and falsehoods told to him about his father's condition before his death have embittered him. He would rather be an adult, as Barrie aludes to at one point in the picture. But as Barrie learns to set himself free through his words, he inspires young Peter to do the same, and soon the boy is putting his thoughts into words.

Back on the stage, Barrie's new play is coming together, and the bewildered actors are not sure what to think -- pirates, fairies, a boy who never grows up and a man in a dog suit. Remember, this is an age where children's theatre as we know it is not in the dramatic dictionary yet. Our nervous producer is bracing for yet another flop. But Barrie gets an idea -- and he takes a step with the audience which underlines the divide between children and adults of the age.

Finding Neverland is not wringed for tears, but it is honest about loss, love, and pain. It speaks to children and inner children alike, and it reinforces our need for escape, for fun, for play. It is about daring to dream. But it shows, more than anything, how much we really don't want to grow up, even though biology and sociology says we must -- just like Peter Pan.

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