Finding Neverland (2004)

Film review: Finding Neverland (2004), directed by Marc Forster

Playwright James Barrie (Johnny Depp) struggles both at work and at home. His latest play was a flop, so the theatre director (Dustin Hoffman, trying to have a British accent and failing?) wants something new, something better. Barrie’s wife Mary (Radha Mitchell) feels alienated by her husband’s unavailability – he’s always buried in his work, with very little time for her.

One day, whilst in a park, James encounters the Llewelyn Davies family. The mother, Sylvia (Kate Winslet) is a widow whose husband left her very little in the way of income, and her four young boys George (Nick Roud), Peter (Freddie Highmore), Jack (Joe Prospero) and Michael (Luke Spill) are trying to get on with their lives. James befriends the family and enjoys playing with the boys, and he slowly realises there’s a story at his fingertips, wanting to come out and play: Peter Pan.

But life isn’t all that easy. Not when your harshest critic is a grief-stricken boy and your wife (along with the rest of London society) thinks you’re having an affair with another woman.

Also starring Julie Christie as Lady du Maurier, Ian Hart as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (!), Kelly Macdonald as Peter Pan in the final play, and Mackenzie Crook as the theatre’s usher.

When I saw this film was on, I thought I’d watch it on a whim. I’d heard the name and it mentioned it was about the author of Peter Pan, and starring Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet … can’t go wrong. I had no idea what sort of film it was, or what to expect.

James comes across as a nice guy, albeit an eccentric workaholic, but he cares deeply about those children. He also cares deeply for their mother, but it seems like the relationship is strictly platonic. It could be argued that his estranged wife wasn’t really making much of an effort for them to stay together – in fact, at the beginning, he asks if she wants to accompany him to the park and she declines, because he’ll “only be working anyway”.

Frosty the snowman though she is, you can understand why, as he’s never around because he’s always working, writing plays. When he doesn’t just devote all his time to that, he picks the company of children and their widowed mother instead of her, his wife. Mary walks a fine line between snubbed wife and frosty society bitch, and I can sympathise with her while at the same time think she should get a bloody grip.

Sylvia seems to cope fairly well with being a widow, even if her mother (Christie) has a few things to say about her new friend. Sylvia takes the friendship with James in her stride, probably happy that the boys have a male influence in their lives again – even if this influence enjoys dressing up as cowboys, indians, pirates or whatever.

The boys all play their parts beautifully. Freddie Highmore especially so. His character, Peter, didn’t take his father’s passing at all well (to be expected, really), and instead of living his life as the child that he is, he tries very hard to be grown-up and dismisses the “fairy stories” that James tell them as nonsense. He’s not thrilled about James barging in and trying to be their father either, even though that’s not actually the case at all. It’s a very convincing performance of a grief-stricken boy, and no wonder Highmore won awards for it.

In fact, the film and the people involved with it won several prestigious awards. Johnny Depp got an Oscar nomination. If you see the film, you can easily see why awards and nominations were showered on this film. It really is an amazing film with amazing performances. I had no doubt that both Depp and Winslet are fantastic actors, but this film proves it. Highmore was good in previous films I’ve seen him in, but here, he’s truly excellent. I hope he’ll keep it up in his future career, which I’m sure is going to be long and prosperous. At least I hope it will be.

A word of caution, though: you might want to consider having a box of tissues at hand for this film. It pulls on heartstrings quite a lot, and while it’s not entirely true to life, it doesn’t matter. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Peter Pan film in its entirety, Hook being the exception, and I’ve never read the novel, but I’m still aware of it in general, culturally, so it won’t matter if you’re not 100% clued up on Peter Pan, you can still enjoy this film. And you should see it if you can, honestly.

5 out of 5 notebooks.

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