London, 1903. Acclaimed playwright J. M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) has just written a play, Little Mary, but unfortunately it hasn’t done too well. When his maid cuts the review from his newspaper, Barrie spies Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four young boys playing in the park and soon begins spending a great deal of time with them. He finds their exploits to be inspirational, and indeed they inspire within him the idea to write a new play, one that children can enjoy as well as adults, about a boy who never grows up.
I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen Peter Pan. Now, chances are at some point in that period of my life that others refer to as their childhood I was present whilst this film was on in the background, but I’ve little to no memory of my life before the age of about fourteen, and anything I can remember is almost entirely a blur, so all I know of Peter Pan is in broad strokes. There’s something about a rogue shadow, a ticking clockodile, a fairy and that Jason Patric film where Keifer Sutherland is a vampire. So, just like when I watched Shakespeare in Love, there was an awful lot going on here that went over my head in terms of being related to that story. However, also like Shakespeare in Love, this lack of prior knowledge did not hamper my enjoyment of the film (I’m a supporter of SiL, although Saving Private Ryan was robbed of the Oscar).
So, giving my limited knowledge of the story at hand and the author in question, I really didn’t know what to expect with Finding Neverland. What I got was a film at times charmingly whimsical and elsewhere soppily melodramatic, something young families would probably enjoy together. However, as Depp’s Barrie ambles his way past a sceptical show producer (Dustin Hoffman), a social-climbing yet distant wife (Radha Mitchell) and Sylvia’s disapproving mother (Julie Christie) as he goes about writing and putting on his new show, the whole thing seemed to lack any real drive. For the first two-thirds of the film there isn’t anything to latch onto plot-wise within the rambling story; it just charts the growing relationship between Barrie and Sylvia, and Barrie’s attempts to bring Sylvia’s second-youngest son Peter (Freddie Highmore) out of the shell he retreated into when his father died. There are too many smaller tangents going on without a predominant central arc to structure them around. It also didn’t help too much that most of the tangents were fairly trivial, entirely unoriginal and more than a little dull.
The trouble with making a film about the story behind another piece of art is that oftentimes the film’s subject is so well known or worldly renowned that the story behind the making of it is far less interesting or entertaining. That was a very confusing sentence to write, but I’m pretty sure that what I’m trying to say is when watching Finding Neverland I’d much rather have been watching Peter Pan – either the film or the play. Or possibly Hook, I don’t mind. What was good though was the introduction of fantastical elements into the plot, showcasing Barrie’s overactive imagination. When he and his wife enter their separate bedrooms, she steps into the inky black murk, whilst he skips into a brightly lit meadow of wonder and creativity. Playing with his dog becomes dancing with a bear at the centre of a circus, and he plays a pirate and a Native American long before either Captain Jack or Tonto. The only problem is there wasn’t enough silliness, in a story that really needed a bit more to balance the melodramatic nature of some aspects of the plot. Johnny Depp is good in his role, with a decent Scottish accent and just the right amount of twinkle in his eye, but he is the clear lead, with the likes of Winslet and Hoffman relegated to the sidelines.
The scenes featuring the production and rehearsalof the play were the ones that worked best, but again these were too few and far between to make enough of an impact, even with the likes of Mackenzie Crook, Paul Whitehouse, Toby Jones and Kelly Macdonald making up the members of the theatre staff and acting company. My biggest issue, though, was the ending, which should have taken place five minutes before it did, but director Marc Forster, whose career has included the great (Stranger Than Fiction) and the not-so-great (Quantum of Solace), felt the need to tag on a scene that was not only completely unnecessary, but it coated the whole thing with an inch-thick layer of sugar that left a bad taste in my mouth.
Choose life 5/10