When I was in elementary school, I wrote a book report on Peter Pan that I was pretty happy with. My teacher responded well, but she made me rewrite the entire report because I had consistently misspelled “Michael” as “Micheal.” So, for several years, Peter Pan was to me a way to remember how to spell Michael, though I really had enjoyed the story. Before reading the book, I had, like many children, seen Disney’s version. Since, the public’s appetite for the story seems to remain unquenched. Besides having been repeatedly performed on stage, Dustin Hoffman (who has a part in this film), Julia Roberts, and Robin Williams starred in Steven Spielberg’s unfortunate Hook in 1991, and there was a live-action Peter Pan released just last year. I suppose it was only a matter of time before some filmmaker decided to give us the story behind the story.
Hence Marc Forster’s Finding Neverland, the story of the events that inspired J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) to pen Peter Pan in 1904. The movie opens in London 1903, at the first screening of Barrie’s failed Little Mary, and the magic of the film, through the filter of Barrie’s imagination, is quickly established: the audience of Little Mary watches silently, perhaps restlessly, as the play moves through its (apparently) unenjoyable scenes. As Barrie watches, disheartened, rain begins to pour down on the audience — no interpretation necessary.
Aside from a failed play, Barrie is also in the midst of a failed marriage. His wife, Mary (Radha Mitchell), is a social climber with little patience for the eccentricities of her husband, and the situation isn’t helped by Barrie’s happenchance meeting with the Llewelyn Davies family: widow Sylvia (Kate Winslett) and her four sons, George (Nick Roud), Jack (Joe Prospero), Peter (Freddie Highmore), and Michael (Luke Spill). Barrie befriends the boys, and the mother through them, in a particularly lovely scene in which he dances with his dog while beseeching the boys to imagine him dancing with a bear. The scene grows larger and larger until Barrie and a bear are dancing about a huge, columned ballroom, in the center of a vast dancing crowd, leaving Sylvia and her boys, save Peter, thrilled at the spectacle.
The relationship with the family grows until Barrie’s life is consumed by the Llewelyn Davieses and the inspiration the family offers him. His wife is all but forgotten, and rumors swirl around town regarding his relationship with Sylvia, questioning even his interest in the boys. Clearly Barrie’s relationship with Sylvia is more intense than his relationship with his wife — he tells her about Neverland, which is something he’d never shared with anyone, including his wife — but Barrie’s interest seems to be primarily with the boys, particularly with Peter, whose father’s death and the lies the boys were told during their father’s illness have left his innocence and his imagination in shambles.
Aside from Barrie, Peter is the story’s most complex character. Highmore’s expressions give Peter a knowing, tired look, as though the world has crushed him before he has even had a chance to live. Barrie is something like a savior to Peter; acting as both a playmate and a surrogate father, Barrie persuades the boy to step outside of the literal, though doing so exposes Peter to the hurt that he had been running from all along. Highmore delivers the most moving lines of the film, and he does so in a way that’s so believable it’s painful: “I’m tired of grownups lying to me.” With that line we understand why Peter wants to grow up, as well as why Barrie wants to remain forever a boy.
Adding to the already complex dynamic of the Barrie/Llewelyn Davies connection, Sylvia’s mother, Mrs. Emma du Maurier (Julie Christie), is as unhappy with Barrie’s interest in her daughter’s family as is Barrie’s wife. Though Emma is a stern character, she is not mean-spirited, despite the hook Barrie momentarily imagines replacing one of her hands, setting her up as the ill-fated villain of Barrie’s most famous work. Some key aspects of Hook’s character are evident in Emma: She enjoys order, demands respect, and believes that little boys should be minding their postures rather than exploring their imaginative minds. She believes the boys should go to bed at a set time while Barrie’s take on the subject is that “young boys should never go to bed; they always wake up a day older.”
The dialogue is enough to connect Emma to Peter Pan’s Hook, so showing her hand as a hook is superfluous, simple-minded, and a bit condescending. Other visuals, though, like the dancing-bear scene, bring enchantment to the film. In one of the most visually outstanding scenes, Barrie, Sylvia, and the boys are acting out a pirate scene that would eventually become part of Barrie’s play. The screen switches back and forth between actual and imagined, the imagined scenes aboard a pirate ship. The water surrounding the ship is a series of mechanized waves that move to cause the ship to ebb and flow, creating a sight that is altogether more magical than real water would have been.
The movie is successful in capturing the audience’s imagination, and the performances are terrific — particularly Depp and Highmore — but it left me wondering if the story was moving or manipulative. Hollywood, thankfully, avoided turning Barrie’s relationship with Sylvia into a love story, but the entire premise of Finding Neverland is false. We are led to believe that Peter’s disillusionment, pain, and anger are the primary inspirations of Peter Pan. But if the actual Peter Llewelyn Davies was as damaged as Hollywood’s version of him, it wasn’t because his father had died. When Barrie became a part of the family, the father was alive, and, presumably, well. Other moments near the film’s end also caused me to wonder, between tears, if what I had just seen deserved the critical applause that it would no doubt be receiving. As a movie to enjoy with the kids, Finding Neverland is pretty good, but it’s manipulation, not thoughtful filmmaking. The film showcases beautiful imagery and tremendous acting talent but, to borrow from Peter, I’m tired of Hollywood lying to me.
Ryan Lindsey previously wrote political commentary and the occasional movie review for Pajiba.
Finding Neverland / Ryan Lindsey
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()