Another entertaining attempt to make genius accessible to us all.
In 1903 London it is hard to believe any artist besides Oscar Wilde could have energized the West End more than J.M. Barrie with his immortal "Peter Pan." "Finding Neverland" attempts to tell how Barrie (Johnny Depp) was inspired through his relationship with widower Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four fatherless boys.
The replication of London and its play-going society is as perfect as we've grown to expect; see, for instance, "Being Julia," which is also about the London stage and star Julia Lambert (Annette Bening), who blurs the line between her performances and her personal life. In a sense, that's what "Neverland" addresses: Barrie creating magical escape for children but losing the magic in his marriage, believing his wife and Sylvia would ever be there for him. Also, both films attempt to deal with the isolation genius brings and the ironic truth that the more success art brings, the more distance from reality and humanity is required for the creation.
Depp underplays Barrie to the extent that when he plays a pirate for the children, I longed for his swashbuckler in "Pirates of the Caribbean." Even when he is deeply involved with the children, who are his muse along with their mother, he seems to be holding back the energy Barrie must have had or that Depp certainly has. Finally, the charges of pedophilia that pursued Barrie for most of his life are only hinted at with one statement.
Enough sentimentality is loaded on the last third of the film to sink the "Titanic" without glacial help. Sylvia's deadly consumption lets director Forster indulge his actors with pithy statements about death and its antidote, the imagination. The heartstrings are pulled harder than the ropes elevating Pan and the boys on the stage. The literal translation of the Davies kid's actions into those of Pan, Wendy, and friends lacks the imagination of the author himself.
Depp remains today's most versatile actor, so when he underplays, as he does here, he is still interesting. "Finding Neverland" is more engaging than his "Secret Window," where he also plays a writer troubled with his inspiration, and "Neverland" this year joins "De-Lovely" (Col Porter's life) as another entertaining attempt to make genius accessible to us all.
William Blake has the last word on the joy and inspiration of children: "When the voices of children are heard on the green /And laughing is heard on the hill, / My heart is at rest within my breast/ And every thing else is still."