Johnny Depp as J.M. Barrie
Kate Winslet as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies
Julie Christie as Mrs. du Maurier
Nick Roud as George Llewelyn Davies
Radha Mitchell as Mary Barrie
Joe Prospero as Jack Llewelyn Davies
Freddie Highmore as Peter Llewelyn Davies
Dustin Hoffman as Charles Frohman
Kate Maberly as Wendy Darling
Luke Spill as Michael Llewelyn Davis
Kelly Macdonald as Peter Pan
Tony Way as Set Mover
Murray McArthur as Stage Hand
Ian Hart as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Paul Whitehouse as Stage Manager
Finding Neverland is a wondrous look at the rediscovery of youth in times of trauma that will drag the kid kicking and screaming out of even the most jaded viewer. An amazing and magical film!
Writer J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp), well known on the London theatre circuit despite his lack of true success, begins spending time with a young widow (Kate Winslet) and her four boys. Although his wife and her upper crust society friends frown on the relationship, his time with the boys allows him to rediscover his lost youth and inspires him to create his greatest and most loved work, “Peter Pan.”
While there’s nothing new about a semi-fictionalized story based on the life of a real person, Finding Neverland is by no means a biopic in the traditional sense. The story takes place within the course of a few months in Barrie’s life, as he tries to find direction in a world that doesn’t understand him. He avoids the realities of a flagging career and an unsympathetic wife by escaping into his own vivid imagination, and as the story unfolds, it’s just as easy for the viewer to do the same. That mix of fantasy with reality makes Finding Neverland special in a way not unlike Tim Burton’s Big Fish.
Barrie is introduced in his natural environment of the theatre, as his latest play is being met with a rather cool reception by London’s high society, much to the frustration of the theatre owner, played by Dustin Hoffman. Barrie goes to the park with his dog to find inspiration, and there, he meets the widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davis, trying to raise four rambunctious boys on her own. Barrie quickly finds kindred spirits in the kids, but despite the connection between the film’s title and a certain pop singer, there is nothing lurid about the relationship between Barrie and the kids, as they spur him to let his creative side roam free. Of course, that doesn’t stop people from talking, and Barrie soon finds himself ostracized by his wife and her high society friends, who think that Barrie is having an affair with the widow and that his relationship with the children isn’t healthy. Undaunted, Barrie continues to play all sorts of games of pirates and Indians with the boys, slowly forming the ideas for “Peter Pan” around his time spent with them. The film then breaks off into concurrent stories as Barrie tries to balance his time with the kids with saving his marriage and staging the production of the play.
As expected, Depp is marvelous as the eccentric man who relates better to kids than adults, delivering his lines with a convincing Scottish accent. Though Depp’s performance, he doesn’t get as much of a chance to show true emotions, so he ends up being more of a sounding board for the rest of the characters, allowing him to pull out great performance from his co-stars.
Far and beyond them all is the standout performance by Freddie Highmore as the second youngest, a cynical boy named Peter, who is trying so hard to grow up and put the hurt from losing his father behind him. Peter constantly butts heads with Barrie, creating some wonderful moments where the younger actor often steals the scenes from Depp, which is quite a reversal from the norm. But Highmore also has some very powerful and emotional scenes that will guarantee there isn’t a dry eye in the house, showing him to be one of the strongest young actors since Keisha Castle-Hughes. (It’s wonderful to hear that Depp himself chose Highmore to play the title role in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory opposite his Willy Wonka.)
Dustin Hoffman has a great time playing the crotchety theatre owner concerned about losing money by investing in Barrie’s whims. He delivers his lines with the sort of dry wit that gives the film its best laughs. The rest of the cast has just as much to offer. Radha Mitchell as Barrie’s cold and often jealous wife and Julie Christie as Sylvias’ judgmental mother, make for interesting antagonists, being two women so obsessed with their place in society that they feel the need to ruin Barrie’s relationship with the kids. The only performance that isn’t quite up to the par with the others is Winslet, who never veers too far away from her normal stereotypical role.
With a solid script and a great cast, Finding Neverland is a fresh departure for Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball), as he finds the perfect combination of fantasy, humor, and pathos, pacing the film so that it has many high points and no lulls. Towards the end, the film becomes an emotional roller coaster, and the more cynical may find it to be too manipulative in the way it lines up so many emotional peaks one after another. On the other hand, those who loved any of the incarnations of Barrie’s classic should be able to let their kid out long enough to believe in the possibilities of Barrie’s Neverland being real.