Directed by Marc Forster. UK. 2004.

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"To die will be an awfully big adventure ” - Peter Pan

In a culture that worships youth, the most logical step of course is not to grow up, something a few people I know are working on. Their role model is Peter Pan or the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up, a play by J.M. Barrie, first performed in 1904. Though it is speculated that Barrie wrote Peter Pan to immortalize his dead brother David as the perfect child, conventional wisdom suggests that the story emerged from tales told to the five sons of Arthur and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, boys to whom Barrie grew close and eventually became guardian. Though Barrie was a questionable figure with many hints about his dark side, in Marc Forster's Finding Neverland, his life is dramatized as wholesome family entertainment without a trace of ambivalence, sexual or otherwise.

According to Anthony Lane, "He (Barrie) was short and slight, with bags under his eyes and a pale, protuberant brow, like a clever schoolboy who has stayed up late reading books under the bedclothes. He had a heavy mustache and a pipe smoker’s percussive cough". Johnny Depp plays Barrie in a convincingly understated manner though in fact he looks nothing like him. As the film opens, Barrie is undergoing an artistic crisis. His latest play is a failure and he is without inspiration, prodded to do better by Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman), his money conscious producer. His marriage faltering for reasons only hinted at, his prospects dubious, Barrie encounters a family of four bright youngsters, ages 5 to 12, and their widowed mother (Kate Winslet) relaxing in the neighbourhood park and Barrie is "drawn" to the boys. 

Together they put on improvised plays, fly homemade kites in the park, play cowboys and Indians in the backyard, and dress up as pirates, activities which laid the groundwork for what became Peter Pan. The meetings become regular and the boys start to refer to him as Uncle Jim. He offers them use of the summer cottage that he and Mary never use, and they are very grateful. All are spared the distasteful experience of having to grow up. Their relationship raises eyebrows in Victorian London, however, and Sylvia's stern mother (Julie Christie) accuses Barrie of harming her daughter's chances of getting her life together and remarrying. Barrie begins to write again and develops a play about a young boy who takes his friends to a place called Neverland where no one ever grows up and the rest is history (or speculative fiction as the case may be). 

Johnny Depp delivers Barrie as sweet and loving, without a devious bone in his body and Winslet is strong in the role of the widowed mother who is gradually developing a serious lung disease. The highlight of the film, however, may be the performance of young Freddie Highmore as the real Peter, the boy who has grown up too fast. Though Finding Neverland is a sanitized version of real events, it engagingly captures the spirit of innocence in danger of disappearing from our modern life and it can be enjoyed on its own merits. If the influence of the Davies family brought out the best in Barrie, perhaps it can do the same for us, stimulating a generation grown cynical into recapturing the spirit of their inner child. 


Howard Schumann
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