Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Dec 21, 2004 9:04 am 
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You'll be touched in spite of yourself

Was James M. Barrie a pedophile? This movie will not give you an answer. It's a late Victorian tearjerker, a sort of highly edited biopic in which some of the details have been changed around, who was still married when, how many children there were. Was Barrie still married when he met Mrs. Davies and her four boys? Was that the number of boys she had? Was Mrs. Davies' husband already dead? Did she die right after the opening of Peter Pan? It’s been telescoped and pumped up, with the aim of gaining maximum sympathy and jerking more tears; and it works. Tears are jerked. This movie is much more touching than one might think. And excellent performances are turned in by everyone; only Dustin Hoffman as Barrie's producer does a merely modest and workmanlike job. Kate Winslet is admirable as the mother Barrie wins over through her boys and Julie Christie imposing in a thankless role as the disapproving parent.

Johnny Depp, who has made so many good choices of roles in movies, has become an immensely secure, accomplished actor. Depp is delightful, as usual, to watch. The old inner quiet is still there, with a growing warmth and benevolence. He has said that having a child has completely changed him, and it's obvious his innate playfulness and delight in enacting Chaplin/Keaton mimes now has a purpose -- entertaining children -- that made Barrie an obvious role for him. As Lewis Carroll's cult of little girls led to his masterpieces about the adventures of Alice, J.M. Barrie's adoration of the Davies boys, and wishing they'd never grow up, led to his masterpiece, the fairy tale of a boy who never does grow old. In both cases, the men were childless, and odd. But while Carroll was a mathematician, Barrie was a successful playwright.

Depp is splendid, both charming and self-effacing. But it's highly unlikely the real Barrie was as suave and easy as Depp is in Finding Neverland. He must have been profoundly uneasy with adults. One doesn't really see this in Depp's version.

Nevertheless the movie is very good at suggesting, without having to spell out, all the things it wants to say. It's first about Barrie's relation to Mrs. Davies and her boys, second about how that led to the play he's famous for. As a portrait of late Victorian culture and thought the movie isn't bad. So much isn't talked about that nonetheless is in the air. The real Peter is the linchpin, and the young actor, Freddie Highmore, and the way his part is written, are both quite fine. It's Peter Llewelyn Davies who asserts reality, won't accept fantasy, yet also he who writes, and finds reality hardest to deal with.

It's a fine moment when someone in the crowd in the foyer after the opening performance of the play hears Barrie address the boy as Peter and says, "You're Peter Pan!" and Peter points to Barrie and says, "no, he is." The relation between Barrie and Peter is a thread that is strong and clear, but never made dominant.

The movie is about the beauty of childish innocence and about the willing of imagination (finding Neverland) more than it's about refusing to grow up; in fact it's made very clear that both Peter and his elder brother are growing up. Barrie notes it with approval, and they accept it. The puer eternus or eternal child theme, which is itself eternal, has its classic modern treatment in this play, but the presence of that theme in the play doesn't cause it to be pressed too hard on the people in the story. The movie doesn't touch on the fact that these boys didn't grow up to have happy lives. Or that Barrie didn't have one either. It's "Neverland" is the brief interval between meeting the boys and the success of the play.

The film is worth watching even if it paints too perfect a picture. Here, filmic exaggeration seems appropriate, even the "Neverland" that opens up in the Davies livingroom after a performance of Peter Pan there for the ill Mrs. Davies, and her walking off into it, and even the trailer moment when the boys are jumping up and down on their beds and they fly out the window, imagined by Barrie, visualized by the filmmakers. The only real flaw is the too schmaltzy music.

It's not clear whether the filmmakers grasped why Peter Pan became such a great hit in its time, but they do make the magic of the opening performance deeply touching and climactic, as it needs to be. And so are the later scenes when the boys' mother dies and the must deal with this fact manfully.

One can't help but conclude that the screenplay of Finding Neverland deserves an Oscar nomination. Does Depp? Why not? He's a great movie actor, and of all his screen roles, this one has perhaps the broadest appeal. He may be more interesting in Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Dead Man, Donnie Brasco, or Fear and Loathing: those are his defining moments. But he belongs to everyone now, and so he can take away the little statue for being James M. Barrie.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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