|Saturday, Nov 28, 2015, 12:11:20 PM|
Thursday, November 25, 2004
Flight club: Finding Neverland flits over subject's serious side
By Anthony Del Valle
If you know anything about Victorian playwright/novelist James W. Barrie, you don't go into his biopic, Finding Neverland, expecting a work anywhere near as happy as his 1904 Peter Pan. The poor guy, like so many artists, lived a troubled life. But still, the heady mix of melancholy and sexual suppression at the core of director Marc Forster's lusciously produced film is at times unskillfully disturbing. Too often David Magee's screenplay (based on Allan Knee's play The Man Who Was Peter Pan) avoids the messy issues the script brings up.
The film begins with a playground meeting between Barrie (Johnny Depp) and four boys and mother (Kate Winslet) who wind up being the inspiration for his most famous work. Barrie spends lots of time with them, to the point of neglecting his wife (Radha Mitchell). Right away we have questions: What attracts Barrie to these boys? Surely any adult who becomes obsessed with four preadolescent males whom he's just met deserves a mental health specialist's attention. But even if Barrie is a suppressed pedophile, why does he become attached to these boys? If he's not a homosexual pedophile, why doesn't he go about helping little girls as well? Although Barrie has an affection for the boys' mother, we have no idea if it's platonic, or if he's too pathologically shy to make a move, or if he's just using her so he can spend maximum time with his real chums.
We know from previous bios that Barrie may have been impotent, but this film deals with the issue by bringing it up and then tossing it aside. Why did he marry his wife? And why did their relationship suddenly turn sour? (She's such a nag in this movie that you wish they'd divorce and get it over with.)
None of these questions is directed at Barrie himself. They're aimed strictly at the character in Forster's film, which is infuriatingly ambiguous. Either the writer didn't know what to make of his subject (it's okay for a Victorian character to act prudish, but it's not okay for a filmmaker to act just as suppressed), or the moneymen must have figured a major holiday movie can't go poking into pedophilia and impotency and adultery and still sell out in Kansas. All this weird lacking in undertow results in a weeper of a climax that seems to belong in another film.
There is, though, one thing the writer does very right: You see the connection here between the man and his work. You come to understand what Peter Pan means to its author, why he wrote it and how the ideas behind it were born. It's unlikely you'll ever watch another version of this children's tale with the same eyes.
Depp continues to deepen his work as a screen actor, with a soulful face that seems incapable of not expressing something. He never steps out of character. The trouble here is he's playing some vague notion of emotional withdrawal. It's not explicit enough for us to make sense of it. When he is around the boys' mother, he registers neither desire nor friendship. When he's with the boys, you can see he's having a good time, but you don't get the sense of eccentricity that results in their becoming the center of his life. The script gives Depp nothing to play by keeping his character neutral.
Julie Christie, as the boys' domineering grandmother, is the film's standout. Watching the former 1960s social rebel play a stuffy, proper prig is a delicious Hollywood in-joke. The older actress gives beauty to her age lines by bringing, with each passing year, more and more emotional depth to her craft.