Finding Neverland (PG)

Away with the fairies? Just a bit...
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The Independent Culture

Ken Russell's Gothic is a bizarre and ridiculous film, but bless him, the maverick director solved one problem of the literary biopic brilliantly. It's impossible to convey on screen the tedious graft of even the most glamorous author's life (in his case, that of Byron, Shelley and Mary Shelley) without resorting to the visual cliché of the genius glimpsed briefly tapping at a typewriter or scratching his quill pen across parchment. Russell didn't even try. Instead, he asked the simple question, "What sort of person produces work like this?", and let his imagination rip. From the moment we see J M Barrie (Johnny Depp) hunched on a bench in Kensington Gardens, scribbling in a journal, we know that Finding Neverland isn't going to be anywhere near as inventive.

Ken Russell's Gothic is a bizarre and ridiculous film, but bless him, the maverick director solved one problem of the literary biopic brilliantly. It's impossible to convey on screen the tedious graft of even the most glamorous author's life (in his case, that of Byron, Shelley and Mary Shelley) without resorting to the visual cliché of the genius glimpsed briefly tapping at a typewriter or scratching his quill pen across parchment. Russell didn't even try. Instead, he asked the simple question, "What sort of person produces work like this?", and let his imagination rip. From the moment we see J M Barrie (Johnny Depp) hunched on a bench in Kensington Gardens, scribbling in a journal, we know that Finding Neverland isn't going to be anywhere near as inventive.

The other cinematic convention - art as the higher plagiarism - concerns the nature of literary invention. If Coleridge writes about an Ancient Mariner, chances are that he actually met one down by the harbour. Writers' ideas are just floating around in space, as one character speculates here, and we could all catch them if we tried harder. Neverland is somewhere you can get to. Something you can find.

Funnily enough, in the case of Barrie, this literalism has a very strong basis in fact. One day in Kensington Gardens, he met the enchanting Llewelyn Davies brothers. Over the years that followed, their hectic adventures in the park, involving pirates, mermaids and fairies, became the raw material for his play, Peter Pan. In his dedication, "To the Five", Barrie confessed: "I suppose I always knew that I made Peter by rubbing the five of you violently together, as savages with two sticks produce a flame. That is all he is, the spark I got from you."

Here, they are four huffing little tugs, towing a yummy mummy in the shape of widowed Kate Winslet. The lushness of the production is underlined by the extravagance, even waste, of the casting. Julie Christie is a puzzlingly evil granny. Mackenzie Crook is a theatre usher, with a mere handful of lines; the wonderful Ian Hart appears briefly as Barrie's cricketing pal. Hart's only function is to raise, for the modern audience, the spectre of paedophilia (instantly dismissed). The screenplay excises Arthur Llewelyn Davies, who was still alive when Barrie met his boys. By obscuring the fact that Barrie was adored and trusted by the whole family, the film actually makes his relationship with the children seem much stranger.

Not that anybody could possibly think anything bad about Johnny Depp. His Scottish accent is immaculate. His face is innocently unworn and enthusiastic. Though he has a very grown-up life, with a wife, servants and huge house, he's as emotionally detached as Pan himself. Depp plays him as neither repressed nor autistic, but something far beyond. The action might get a bit snivelly, but Depp's Barrie retains his reserve and poise.

Marc Forster (who previously directed Monster's Ball) explores the texture of Barrie's fantasies by cutting from everyday reality (the boys playing cowboys in their back garden) to the world of imagination (the boys done up in full John Wayne rig, swaggering round a film set reminiscent of High Noon). It's amusing, but a serious mistake. Why would four boys c1905 have a visual imagination based on classic Westerns? All this proves is how much our own imagination has been polluted by Hollywood. It's impossible to get back to the innocence of the childish dreams that spawned Pan. A much more amusing movie quote comes when the pirate "Captain Swarthy", a precursor of Hook, ties his little prisoners to the mast (a tree), and Johnny briefly reprises Pirates of the Caribbean's glorious ne-er-do-well Captain Jack.

The film tracks the genesis of Barrie's play Peter Pan right up to opening night. It's not exactly Topsy-Turvy, but it works well. However, when Winslet starts coughing, the film nosedives into horrible sentimentality. Though Winslet remains plump and rosy as ever, her character is dying. Will she find Neverland before she goes? But as this film proposes, Neverland can easily be accessed through the silver window at your local multiplex - straight on till morning.

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