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.

Arts and Entertainment
'I do think a woman's place is eventually in the home, but I see no harm in her having some fun before she gets there.'

Is this the end of the Dowager Countess?tv
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Martin of Coldplay performs live for fans at Enmore Theatre on June 19, 2014 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
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.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn