Finding Neverland

December, 2004, Drama

Directed by:Marc Forster

Starring:Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, and Dustin Hoffman<!--Do not add minor characters to the infobox-->

Anachronism- (n) From the Greek, (anakhronismos); something out of its proper time. 

Webster's II New Riverside University Dictionary

You can't fault the German-born, Swiss-raised director Marc Forster for adhering to one genre; he's followed the desperately carnal and gritty Monster's Ball with this adaptation of Alan Knee's stage-play about the events which led up to the creation and initial theatrical presentation of J.M.Barrie's classic, "Peter Pan". In doing so, Forster delivers a film set in Edwardian England that would have been perfectly at home had it been made sixty years ago when innocence, moral purpose and personal rectitude were fit subject for screenplays designed to be both uplifting and financially successful. Whether this movie will find an audience that appreciates the use of an outdated cinematic style in examining a piece of theater from an even earlier era remains to be seen. Much of the quiet charm this film exudes comes from a sense of déjà vu those in the audience old enough to collect Social Security will find as this stately, dignified work unfolds. If you like your cinema with a bit of nostalgia, Neverland will enthrall.

The director ups the ante by employing this old-fashioned, studio-style to tackle that perennial Hollywood obsession, artistic creativity. It's a subject on which movies have at best, a decidedly mixed track record. Dramatic presentations, (Ray, for example) rarely work as well as thoughtful documentaries that simply allow artists to speak for themselves. Yet in examining the sources behind Barrie's oft-told tale of pirates, fairies and flying children, Forster dwells in great detail on the circumstances that led the childless Barrie, (played with quiet gravity by Johnny Depp) to spend extraordinary amounts of time in the company of the four sons of Barrie's friends, Arthur and Sylvia Llewellyn-Davies. Barrie apparently entered directly into the childhood playtime of these youngsters, incorporating often-elaborate games of "pretend" in which the playwright was not merely observer, but a frequently active participant. The fruits of this adult-organized youthful creativity became the bedrock of Barrie's now classic examination of the connection between childhood fantasy and the need adults have to plumb their own early experiences in order to make some sense of their older selves. 

The script plays loosely with many of the historical facts and Forster's attempt to visualize Barrie's creative inspiration draws too obviously on the worst of pop psychology, but Depp's reserved gentleman, garbed by Savile Row and deploying a flawless upper-class accent, provides a compelling fulcrum to this touching story of basic decency in its examination of a literary figure isolated from intimacy by a loveless marriage and eager to supplant the memories of his own sad boyhood, ruinously foreshortened by the death of his older brother when they were both in early childhood. 

 Kate Winslet and Julie Christie, (as the mother and grandmother respectively of the Llewellyn boys) are conventionally adequate in conventional roles, but young Freddie Highmore, (the 12 year old actor who plays Peter Llewellen) bristles with the perfect blend of youthful curiosity and canny skepticism at the injection of the odd, soft-spoken playmate his parents have allowed into the family.

But the most interesting element of Neverland is the aura of propriety which so thoroughly pervades its depiction of a time when adultery was only hinted at in films and the suggestion of an adult's potential sexual motivation in spending time in the company of children is contemptuously rejected as mere "nonsense". Whether it was or not in Barrie's case has never been resolved; but Forster's decision to raise the issue only to dismiss it out of hand indicates how completely he's willing to surrender himself to the ethos of a film-making style from an era of not so long ago, when the slightest suggestion of such a topic would have been deep-sixed by the industry's production code. 

That self-imposed censorship greatly contributed to the lack of realism which marred so many otherwise fine productions released during movie's pre-television era, but it also created the opportunity for an artistic examination of man's nobler aspirations in the intra-war years when Hollywood films were becoming globally dominant. The Grapes of Wrath, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Boys Town (to say nothing of clerical saccharine like Going My Way) may seem mawkishly outdated today, but they spoke to national aspirations that still resonate in today's rap-oriented society. Neverland's sensibilities are firmly rooted in a time when American films adhered strictly to the type of "family values" much sought after by critics of our current cultural climate and it's fascinating to be revisit that period in movie history with a contemporary film that adheres so thoroughly to those sensibilities. 

Words like "heartfelt", "touching" and "wholesome" may be clichés in today's climate of youth-oriented movie escapism, when violence is too often served up in excruciating detail and actors shed their clothes as nonchalantly and unnecessarily as they employ obscenities in their dialogue; but Forster's not cowed by current conventions. He's painstakingly created an analysis of cross-generational affection and the sources of creative inspiration, as innocent in its presentation as it is in its content. In doing so, the director has served up a lovely film--whether that's a put-down or a matter of high praise will depend largely on the point of view of those who see it.      

Jake's Takes comments powered by Disqus