Reviewed by: Lucy Pinnington
|Featuring||Johnny Depp … Sir James Matthew Barrie
Kate Winslet … Sylvia Llewelyn Davies
Radha Mitchell … Mary Ansell Barrie
Dustin Hoffman … Charles Frohman
Julie Christie … Mrs. Emma du Maurier
Freddie Highmore … Peter Llewelyn Davies
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|Producer||Nellie Bellflower, Richard N. Gladstein|
“Unlock your imagination”
“Finding Neverland” is a beautiful and moving story of a man who didn’t want to grow up and famously created the myth of Peter Pan, a boy who never grew up, immortalizing that precious stage of boyhood. The film is based on events surrounding the writing of Sir J. M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” and its opening night in 1904.
Struggling with a cold and apparently unloving marriage as well as a career which shows distinct signs of flagging, James Barrie is drawn into a friendship with a family of four charming little boys and their beautiful mother. The Llewelyn Davies boys are also trying to come to terms with the death of their young father, and “Uncle Jim” soon becomes an important part of their family, restoring laughter and delight to their lives.
The idyllic summer that Barrie shares with the family fires in his imagination the plot and themes for his new, ground-breaking play “Peter Pan.” The audience gains fascinating glimpses into the creation of a script and the staging of a play, and we see how Barrie twists fact into fiction as he shapes his story and shares his childhood fantasy of Neverland first with Sylvia and her sons, and then with the world. Just as the story of Peter Pan is bitter-sweet, so Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies family discover that pretending does not make life easy, simple or safe.
While this film is rated PG, I would not be comfortable taking children below the age of about 12 to watch it. There is one outburst of mild swearing when Barrie is anxiously watching the audience’s frosty reception of his play “Little Mary,” but this comes right at the start of the film and could easily be missed. The themes of the movie, however, are adult: love and loss. Children and adults must cope with bereavement and do so in unpredictable ways; some of the strange, sudden transitions from “real-life” to fantasy might upset younger children (and these elements of magic realism also have an adverse impact on the believability of the film for more mature viewers). The adult emotions are complicated and often raw.
The scene play by David Magee allows the actors and actresses to show that emotions, motivations, and personalities are complex and subtle. Julie Christie plays Sylvia’s mother, Emma du Maurier, and while she is a nag—and we see Barrie transform her into Captain Hook in his imagination—ultimately she is a sympathetic character and all her actions are understandable: there are no villains in this piece.
The cinematography is beautiful: the film glows in a golden haze of Edwardian beauty, and the costumes and scenery just add to the charm and completeness of the world conjured up by director, Marc Forster.
The acting is excellent. Among the children, Freddie Highmore who plays young Peter Llewelyn Davies, is outstanding and acts his little heart out in a most affecting way. Depp’s portrayal of Barrie is sensitive and deceptively simple, portraying an essentially lonely man of whom his friend George Bernard Shaw wrote “for all his playfulness, he had hell in his soul.” Kate Winslet’s convincing Sylvia radiates strength as well as charm and beauty. Radha Mitchell who plays Mary Barrie renders perfectly the disappointed wife seeking for what she has lost. Dustin Hoffman and the many British actors who take cameos make watching the film a wonderful excuse for whispering “Oh look, it’s him!” to one’s neighbor.
From a Christian perspective, Barrie’s feelings for the widowed Sylvia might seem to be a case of committing adultery in one’s heart. Yet, it seems as if the childless and unhappy Barrie is more in love with the whole family than merely with the mother. One is left with the impression that whatever love lay between Sylvia and Barrie was the same sort of love Wendy had for Peter Pan, and there is nothing to raise a blush: even when Barrie visits her bedroom, it is to see her on her sick bed. The awful disintegration of the Barrie marriage is seen to be a shared responsibility, no doubt complicated by James’ committment to the Llewelyn Davies family, and a Christian viewer cannot help thinking that if only one of them had been strong enough to decide to love and serve the other in a truly Biblical way, either James or Mary could have saved and transformed their marriage. In reality, the Barrie’s marriage did end after Mary’s adultery, but it seems to have been an unhappy relationship from the start.
There was gossip in Barrie’s lifetime which is reflected in a delicately worded conversation in the film that “Uncle Jim’s” affection for the boys was unwholesome; but the film rejects this, indicating it was the very innocence of the children which made them perfect playmates for Barrie; the real Llewelyn Davies boys also repudiated similar slurs after Barrie’s death. This movie makes clear how much Barrie loved children: he is able to enter into the boys’ world and to play with them almost as a peer, and he keeps 25 seats free on the opening night of Peter Pan for the local orphanage to send a party of children: this reflects the true personality of the man who gifted the rights of Peter Pan, and the wealth they bring in, to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for children.
The imperfect nature of human love is also made clear in “Finding Neverland.” Not only do James and Mary fail to love one another in a complete and unselfish way, but we see that James’ love for the fatherless family is not completely altruistic, and, that, though he wishes for nothing but their good, his well-meaning involvement in their lives makes them victims of gossip and shunning. Even mother-love is shown to be flawed: a mother can harm her children by trying to protect them from truth, and similarly a mother can hurt her daughter by only seeking her best interests. While none of the characters appear to appreciate this, it is only Christ’s perfect and healing love which can be fully depended on and trusted.
Any reference to Christian hope and eternal security is completely missing from this film. For Barrie and his friends, “finding Neverland” is a metaphor for death and the after-life. We see a character make that journey to the grief of those left behind, and true comfort is completely absent as a child is assured that those who die can be found “on every page of your imagination.” It is tragic to think that the characters in the film believe that a made-up land full of fairies, mermaids, pirates, redskins, a clock-swallowing crocodile and a hoard of Lost Boys is the happiest and best destination after death.
Neverland is a happy place to imaginatively spend a summer afternoon, but it is not substitute for the bliss and joy of being in God’s presence in Heaven or the certainty of a bodily resurrection and an eternity in the New Earth the Bible promises. In a film where the boundary between make-believe and real-life is a central theme, it is sad and unsatisfying that the final reality of death and parting are shrouded in “let’s pretend” nonsense.
This is a film I want to watch again, and which we will add to our DVD collection. It made me laugh and it made me cry my eyes out—and even my husband was seen to covertly employ a handkerchief. While not a Christian film, it is one of the least objectionable films we have seen in a long time, and, despite its PG rating, is a movie which should be enjoyed on a deep and satisfying level by adult audiences. It is also a stunningly beautiful movie, evocative of that golden and long-disappeared Edwardian age and the golden and sadly fleeting days of childhood.
Violence: None / Profanity: Minor / Sex/Nudity: None