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Finding Neverland

It’s indelible that the buzz of “award potential” would start humming no matter what project Marc Forster decided to undertake following his 2002 Academy Award nominated effort, Monster’s Ball. Remember, that film won Halle Berry the Oscar for Best Actress, and the film itself was nominated for Best Screenplay, so it’s not surprising that the murmurs have already begun for his latest film, Finding Neverland.

Neverland stars Johnny Depp as J.M. Barrie and the film chronicles the life of the author leading up to the creation of his most remembered work, Peter Pan.

I have to admit that it usually makes me a bit uncomfortable when a film begins with the preface, “Based on True Events” as Neverland does. I don’t know exactly why, but this puts me on the defensive for some reason.

The Coen Brothers played with the notion of “truth” in Fargo by including a title card boasting that the fictional film was in fact “Based on a true story.” They also toyed with this in O Brother, Where Art Thou? by stating that the film was based on Homer’s “Odyssey” all the while claiming that they had never in fact read Homer’s epic poem.

So what is so off-putting by this premise? Perhaps its cynicism, maybe it’s just the posturing implied by such a title. Who knows?

What is known is that Depp’s portrayal of J.M. Barrie completely won me over despite the inclusion of said statement. I don’t know if any of what is covered in Forster’s film is falsified, but truthfully I want to believe every moment of it.

We open with the failure of Barrie’s latest work, a play that is immediately fouled for being too droll for even the drollest lot of London’s wealthy upper crust. He suspects the play to be a failure before the first act has drawn to a close on opening night, and we suspect trouble brewing between him and his aspiring socialite wife Mary (Rhada Mitchell) when we learn that they actually sleep in separate bedrooms.

Barrie dives into his writing with daily visits to a local park with his dog. Upon one visit he becomes acquainted with the widowed Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four sons: George, Jack, Peter, and Michael.

Barrie decides to offer his services in entertaining the boys, but becomes fascinated with the family when he learns that young Peter has completely given up on imagination. Being forced to deal with mortality at such a young age with the death of his father, Peter has completely turned off from fantasy seeing it as nothing but lies and silliness.

As one could surmise, Barrie’s repeat visits with the family result in peeks at the inspirations that prompt the author to construct a life long fairy tale about adolescence, adulthood, and the loss of innocence surrounding a boy who refused to grow up. What is surprising is that the film does not appear to take these moments of inspiration lightly.

We’ve seen this concept once before in John Madden’s Oscar behemoth Shakespeare in Love. The difference here is that Madden’s film took Shakespeare in theme and applied it in situational doses. In that film we witnessed moments of possible influence for the Bard’s future works, but these were all suspected inference and often meant more for our enjoyment as young William cannot see the relevance of each occurrence as we do.

Barrie’s moments of inspiration are far different. Forster’s film is working up to a specific work, the play known as Peter Pan, and so each flash of muse fits into the finished work in some fashion. What works here is the manner in which this is achieved because each one is not implemented verbatim into the finished work.

We get a firsthand look at the process of writing, as Barrie pulls from his own experiences with death and loss and siphons it all through young Peter’s brush with mortality and grief. We even jump from “reality” to “imagination” in such a way that lends insight into the origins of some of Barrie’s characters in the play.

The film is far darker in tone than one might initially expect from such fare. Sure, it doesn’t plumb the depths of the human soul, but Forster doesn’t shy away from the inevitable claims of Barrie’s probable affair with Sylvia or the suggestion of his dalliances with the boys themselves. Granted, these taboo subjects do not receive as much focus as they could have, but its enough to setup the issues surrounding Barrie’s life at that time.

One aspect that seems to resonate through the film is the magic involved in realization. In one scene Barrie points out to George that in an instant he has transformed from a child to an adult. “The boy is gone,” he tells him.

This is all contrasted with the impending production of “Peter Pan” for the first time. Barrie convinces his producer Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman) to back his next play which will center on pirates, Indians, crocodiles, flying children, and fairies, while trying to persuade actors to go along with all of his absurd notions.

How thrilling must it have been to witness the moment of transformation in Barrie’s play from what appeared to be an utterly maniacal into what is inarguably genius?

Undoubtedly, there are bound to be J.M. Barrie aficionados who will criticize and fault the film with inaccuracies, this is to be expected. However, the film does an admirable job presenting the spirit behind story. There is no doubt that the film is laden with liberties regarding the depiction of truth, the question is whether or not it faults the overall experience and the message therein. It doesn’t.

It’s unsure whether or not Finding Neverland will garner any nominations come “Award Season” and over-hype could certainly sink this one if it’s not careful, however the chances are likely that it will garner nominations, especially for Depp.


Mario Anima

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