Finding Neverland (PG)

An awfully odd adventure
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The Independent Culture

As the Scottish playwright JM Barrie in Finding Neverland, Johnny Depp does a child-inside-the-man act that ought to be annoying, but isn't. He's had a fair bit of practice playing dreamers and innocents - in Edward Scissorhands, Benny and Joon and Ed Wood, to name a few - who haven't always conveyed much above a blank benignity. Here he plays an awkward, rather eccentric man who springs to life in the company of children, perhaps because he is so child-like himself. At one point he comes to tea wearing an Indian headdress and war paint, with a wooden duck under his arm, and one senses less a theatrical urge to impress than a boyish delight in pretending.

As the Scottish playwright JM Barrie in Finding Neverland, Johnny Depp does a child-inside-the-man act that ought to be annoying, but isn't. He's had a fair bit of practice playing dreamers and innocents - in Edward Scissorhands, Benny and Joon and Ed Wood, to name a few - who haven't always conveyed much above a blank benignity. Here he plays an awkward, rather eccentric man who springs to life in the company of children, perhaps because he is so child-like himself. At one point he comes to tea wearing an Indian headdress and war paint, with a wooden duck under his arm, and one senses less a theatrical urge to impress than a boyish delight in pretending.

Marc Forster's film, adapted from a stage play by Allan Knee, catches Barrie at an emotional and professional crossroads. It's 1903, and he is depressed by the reception of his latest drama; back at home, his social-climbing wife Mary (Radha Mitchell) seems a stranger to him. A chance meeting in Kensington Gardens with a widow, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four young sons opens up a deep friendship, and provides the creative ignition to Barrie's greatest work. The playwright forms a particular closeness to Peter (Freddie Highmore), the least biddable of Sylvia's boys and the one most affected by their father's death. Barrie is soon known to them as "Uncle Jim", but stern Peter rebuffs any idea of a surrogate parent: "You're not my father," he tells him. From this terrain - eternal boy meets actual boy - we are invited to trace the roots of Peter Pan.

The film appears to know the danger inherent in its subject: we are rather more alert than the Edwardians to the possible implications of a friendship between a grown man and young boys, and the very name Neverland is now associated with a certain pop star and his unhappy attachments to minors. Barrie is warned that suspicion is rife about his behaviour, though the film wisely doesn't overplay it as "controversy".

Anyway, Barrie's Pan has apparently been summoned from a ghost rather than childhood nostalgia: his defining experience was the death of his older brother David, whom he felt driven to replace by presenting himself to his stricken mother wearing David's clothes. Barrie tells Peter that "Neverland" is a fairy-tale Elysium where the dead live on. "To die would be an awfully big adventure," says Peter Pan - poignant, when one considers what awaited these Edwardian innocents 10 years later on the Western Front.

But the question of sex refuses, as it were, to lie down. How could Barrie spend so much time with the Llewelyn Davies family and almost none at all with his wife? Given his love of children, why has he none of his own? Was Mary unable to conceive, or was Barrie simply not interested in sex? The film gives no explanation, nor are we any the wiser as to the relationship between him and Sylvia. In real life, Barrie met the family when Sylvia's husband Arthur was still alive, and one can only guess at the irritation the latter might have felt on seeing his position usurped, however genially.

In the film, the role of family killjoy goes not to the husband but to Sylvia's mother, who asks Barrie, "Why don't you leave her alone?" Julie Christie plays her as a controlling, gimlet-eyed presence, yet she does have a valid anxiety about what Barrie is playing at with her daughter - and what Sylvia is playing at with him. Again, the film isn't telling, but if their ménage confuses us in 2004, how much more bizarre did it seem 100 years ago?

Winslet and Depp (mastering a decent Scots accent) make their relationship as plausible as circumstances allow, and were it not for an impending tragedy, it is implied it might have progressed to the altar. David Magee's script packs the margins with light theatrical comedy in the shape of Dustin Hoffman's fretting producer and a smirking Paul Whitehouse as stage manager; Roberto Schaefer's photography swoons adroitly between reality and scenes of make-believe.

Star of the show, however, is Highmore, whose solemnity and wariness are a corrective to Hollywood's sentimental infatuation with the cult of the child. He isn't pretty; rather, his protruding ears and inky-dark eyes lend him a look straight from a late 19th-century family album. When Peter is cooed over at the first night of Barrie's play by people who imagine him to be "the" Peter Pan, he reacts sharply: "I'm not Peter Pan. He is," pointing at Barrie. Child-actors usually sound so over-rehearsed that a 10-year-old who can deliver lines in an unaffected voice seems a small miracle.

Finding Neverland is a nicely played family entertainment with perhaps more mystery than it knows what to do with. Barrie's fantasy world is vividly portrayed, but his own life remains a shadowland of Edwardian repression. Romantic but asexual, passive but intense, he cuts an oddly disturbing figure: in him reside the pleasures, and the dangers, of innocence.

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