Eminent Edwardians

There's magic to the Peter Pan story, but precious little insight into its repressed magician.

In a time when everyone thinks about sex 24-7 and the term "Neverland" is popularly associated with a fallen pop-star freak drugging and buggering children, it's tough to imagine a sexless innocent like J.M. Barrie (1860–1937), the creator of Peter Pan. "I don't think Uncle Jim experienced a stirring in the undergrowth for anyone—man, woman, child or beast," said one of the five sons of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, whom Barrie dubbed the "Lost Boys" and who starred in his fantasy of eternal youth. Yet he's the unlikely subject of Finding Neverland, which opens Friday, Nov. 19, at Guild 45 and other theaters.

Though Barrie's obsession with the preteen boys was weird, and he actually falsified Mrs. Davies' will to make him their guardian, it wasn't a sexual thing. Not even his marriage was a sexual thing, testified Barrie's wife of 13 years, a gorgeous actress. He was impotent, and evidently content. His Neverland was a place of escape from the terrible world of sexuality and mortality—he was also obsessed with his own brother, who died young, and whose clothes he used to wear to comfort their grieving mother. Creepy, sure, but not exactly Michael Jackson territory.

Marc Forster's movie about Barrie and the boys is glossy, floridly sentimental, yet daringly muted. As the playwright, Johnny Depp is at the opposite pole from his pirate mode. This guy makes Ed Wood look macho. Depp's still-childlike face and guileless eyes are perfect for the part. Here, Barrie's marriage is icy and spiky not because he refuses to sleep with his wife, Mary, but because she's a cold social climber without a shred of sensitivity to the wonderfully fanciful land he inhabits. Radha Mitchell does what she can (not much) with this cardboard role. Depp tries to ride his role on toward the Oscars, but it's an intensely restrained performance.

One day IN 1903, Barrie flees the wife to take his enormous dog on a romp in Kensington Park. He meets cute with the Llewelyn Davieses, dancing with the dog and exhorting the kids to believe it's a bear. He whips them up into fantasy games of pirates and Indians, incorporating bits of the boys' real life. Their frosty, starchy grandma (a stunningly lovely, sharply effective Julie Christie) helps inspire Captain Hook. When Uncle Jimmy comes to dinner, he subversively encourages the kids to violate stuffed-shirt decorum, provoking illicit giggles. (The real Barrie did it by wiggling his ears; Depp actually installed a fart machine under the dinner table. Every era must up the ante when it comes to making kids laugh.)

But the most important Lost Boy, Peter (child-actor-to-watch Freddie Highmore), is a sourpuss who will have none of it. "You're not our father!" he snaps. Actually, Peter's dad was still alive, and rather alarmed, when Barrie crashed into his family like a comet, but the movie needs him dead so Barrie can comfort widowed Sylvia (Kate Winslet) and platonically woo Peter to relinquish the cold comfort of rationalism and defy gravity with him and the other, less difficult boys.

Previously the director of Monster's Ball, Forster also changes theatrical history, opening with Barrie sweating out the opening of a flop play, so he can redeem his reputation with the triumph of Peter Pan (which premiered in 1904). In fact, the previous play wasn't a flop, but Forster succeeds in making Edwardian theater seem magical. The theater scenes aren't as deeply realistic as Topsy-Turvy, nor quite as lively as Being Julia, but they work. Dustin Hoffman does a nice, small turn as Barrie's terrified producer.

Finding Neverland runs into trouble when the boys' mother, Sylvia, develops an ominous little cough. Winslet is, after Christie, the finest actor in the film, but Forster forbade her to milk Sylvia's sickness unto death for big emotion. Her decline isn't dramatic; she just meekly fades away—vanishes into her own growing halo. The movie's big idea is that Barrie's fantasy can comfort the kids for their lost dad and doomed mom. Just before she dies (after witnessing Peter Pan's theatrical triumph), Barrie summons her and the boys to watch a theatrical event involving a wall of the house that opens up onto a beautifully rendered fairy garden.

OK, my eyes misted up. But the whole thing is too airless, the confrontations muffled. One problem is that when outraged relatives understandably demand to know what exactly the deal is between Barrie and Sylvia, the movie has no answers to offer. Sylvia doesn't really have motives, just a decorous phlegm and pale complexion problem. Despite Depp's talent and ambition, his Barrie is half cipher, half uplifting cliché. It's hard to dramatize Edwardian repression.

Modern Hollywood finds it hard to admit the existence of tragedy; movies often blow it by trying to sentimentalize tough realities. Spielberg's The Terminal refused to admit that the real guy whose story inspired it lived in that airport because he was nuts, not because he was an indomitable free spirit. You can sense the note of falseness, despite the most skillful of cinematic magic tricks. Perhaps to compensate for Barrie's enigmatic core, Finding Neverland interestingly and movingly hints at the sad future fate of his Lost Boys (not shown in the film), but it's too timid to follow up on those dark portents.

Growing up can be a terrible thing. Of the five Llewelyn Davies boys, one died in the horrors of World War I, another apparently committed suicide at Oxford, and Peter eventually became a drunken failure, a man bitterly convinced that Peter Pan had ruined his life. When Barrie cut him out of his will, he jumped splat in front of a subway train. But that's a different movie—and probably a better one.

"To die would be an awfully big adventure," says Peter Pan in Barrie's play, but Forster's adventure is too small, and not awful enough.

 
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