Johnny Depp is the only saving grace in a creepy biopic about the creator of Peter Pan
A wealthy middle-aged artist is accosted by a friend with accusations of possible sexual impropriety. The accusations deal not with the artist’s seeming fascination with an ailing widow, but rather with her four boys, with whom he likes to spend long playful hours in some fantasy wonder-place called Neverland.
That Monster’s Ball director Marc Forster expects us to accept this scene, wherein the artist in question is Victorian-era Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp), without reflecting on a certain ex-Jackson Five member is, at best, wishful thinking. The actual effect is unintentional, uncomfortable hilarity.
Forster—working off a stingy script by David Magee, itself based on a play by Allan Knee—gives us a film that presents no psychological backstory explaining Barrie’s man-boy-love interests, instead lazily passing off the inner life of the wee as the man’s sole true muse of pure creativity. But unavoidable Bad guy resonance and depth-adverse characterization are only random entries in Finding Neverland’s laundry list of gaffes.
The first really bad idea about bringing Barrie’s story to the screen was the idea of bringing Barrie’s story to the screen. It’s a story about a writer’s creative process, surely one of the most uncinematic things around. Only David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch managed to pull off this kind of tale, by setting his film almost entirely within the febrile imagination of William S. Burroughs. But Forster is no Cronenberg. Based on his dutiful performance here, he’s more like a stiffer, less organized James Ivory.
Barring insight or illumination, we’re stuck with not much more than a Barrie bio schematic: Barrie’s newest play flops. He meets four boys—Michael (Luke Spill, 8), Peter (Freddie Highmore, 12), George (Nick Roud, 15), and Jack (Joe Prospero, 15)—comes up with the concept of Neverland—here filled with all manner of whimsical, gallumphing CGI creatures—writes/produces Peter Pan, and walks off into the sunset, lads in tow.
The second bad idea (we’ll stop numbering after this) was casting Kate Winslet, surely one of cinema’s more ridiculously lively performers, as the boys’ wan, terminally ill mom, Sylvia. Even more inexplicable was the casting of Radha Mitchell, a notably sizzling presence still sizzling here as Barrie’s long-suffering wife, Marie.
Most problematic is Forster’s choice of Julie Christie, who in real life is suffering from autobiographic amnesia, a devastating degenerative brain disease, to play Sylvia’s mother. Christie, one the greatest, most beloved actresses of ’60s British cinema, certainly does the best she can with the underwritten role of Sylvia’s mother, but she seems distracted, vague, in some indefinable way off. That Christie gave it a brave go is an admirable display of true grit; that Forster chose to feed off her icon value no matter the results—which are often uncomfortable in the extreme to view—guarantees him a long career in knuckleheaded PC Hollywood. Dustin Hoffman, meanwhile, is rather inappropriately Dustin Hoffman-y as Barrie’s constantly kvetching but loyal producer.
Then there’s Depp. It’s a law of nature that any film starring Johnny Depp cannot be entirely worthless, and the rule still holds here. With his hair black and slicked back, Scottish accent on and muted, his manner circumspect but by no means feminine, and his whole vibe entirely de-sexualized, his interactions with the boys come off as sometimes fatherly, sometimes brotherly, and always sweet. In short, he does all humanly possible to nullify the weirdness of a grown man who prefers the company of children to the exclusion of anyone else. To say nothing of Radha Mitchell, whose impressive Victorian bustier and adult sexuality interests him not a whit. (One assumes that Barrie’s absolute lack of erotic interest in anything is meant to underline his artistic purity, dedication to his muse, and/or some similar hooey. That he even dreams of young boys suggests something less savory.) In short, it’s Depp’s sheer Depp-ness that allows us to suspend the film’s many moments of disbelief.
Again, were we spared something, anything, to explain Barrie’s need to revert to childhood both in a literary sense and in his choice of companions, this could conceivably work. But we’re not, despite the film only being “inspired by events” in Barrie’s life—meaning accuracy was no issue.
Ultimately, the sheer existence of Finding Neverland only makes sense in an American cinema where the infantile is the ruling principle, where the concept of an adult imagination is unimaginable, so to speak. Aside from die-hard Depp fans who will enjoy seeing their guy riff on his pirate thing again, this time as Captain Hook, I can’t imagine who the audience for this film would be. Barrie aficionados will feel cheated by having their main man downsized, kids will be creeped out, and adults will be bored silly.