Finding Neverland (PG)

3.00

An awfully odd adventure

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits