Fri, Feb 18, 2005 - Page 17 News List

The story of everlasting youth revisited

In `Finding Neverland' Johnny Depp stars as JM Barrie and Kate Winslet is Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, the widow whose sons inspired `Peter Pan'

By Manohla Dargis  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Johnny Depp, center, and Kate Winslet, right, in a scene from Finding Neverland.


Steeped in melancholy, the strange story of JM Barrie, the Victorian who wrote Peter Pan, has the makings of a marvelous tale and one doozy of a case history. Born in Scotland in 1860, Barrie was a playwright and novelist who, after meeting a family stuffed with young boys, created in 1904 a classic of children's literature. In the years since, Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up has been revisited numerous times, as in the splendid 1952 Disney animation, and has become an emblem for everlasting youth, both healthy and less so.

Mary Martin soared as Peter Pan; Michael Jackson crashed. As Barrie in Finding Neverland, a handsome-looking film about the writer and his unripe inspirations, the actor Johnny Depp neither soars nor crashes, but moseys forward with vague purpose and actorly restraint. Based on the play by Allan Knee, The Man Who Was Peter Pan, and directed by Marc Forster, the film mainly concerns the period during which Barrie met and befriended Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her brood of boys. Adrift in a marriage with a former actress (Radha Mitchell) with whom he enjoyed neither friendship nor bedroom intimacy, Barrie took to the Davies family like a famished man.

What began as play-dates in the park soon evolved into a grand passion.

The geography of that passion remains inexact. Barrie loved the boys and some of the boys loved him, and it was a relationship that provided giggles and gossip. The idea that a grown man would be smitten by children sounds alarming to contemporary ears. But well-to-do Victorians shrouded their progeny in sentimentality (the poor dispatched theirs to factories and fields) and there exists no evidence that Barrie's interest in the boys was anything other than chastely romantic. At the same time, his attentions were undeniably instrumental. The boys inspired Barrie to create his greatest, most lasting work and he stayed closely involved in their lives until death. He lavished them with costly gifts and smothered them with affection, notice that occasionally provoked the irritation of the Davies paterfamilias, Arthur.

Film Notes

Directed by: Marc Forster Steven Johnson

Starring: Johnny Depp (Sir James Matthew Barrie), Kate Winslet (Sylvia Llewelyn Davies), Julie Christie (Mrs. Emma du Maurier), Radha Mitchell (Mary Ansell Barrie), Dustin Hoffman (Charles Frohman), Kelly MacDonald ("Peter Pan") and Ian Hart (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

Running time: 108 minutes

Taiwan Release: Today

Arthur doesn't put in an appearance in Finding Neverland, probably because having a grumbling father and husband on the scene would draw uncomfortable attention to Barrie's fixation. Sylvia is already widowed in David Magee's screenplay and is more the obvious focus of the writer's attention than her children. The beautiful, bountiful widow, with her tousled hair and impeccable manners, quickly becomes an ideal substitute wife for Barrie. She raises kids he loves but doesn't have to live with, and never insists he perform any of the usual husbandly duties. The filmmakers work hard to idealize the relationship and the two actors exchange suitably noble looks even when Winslet's decolletage threatens to play peek-a-boo. It's all terribly polite, not a little dull and remote.

The problem isn't the liberties the filmmakers take with reality, but that this isn't an engaging bowdlerization. Barrie and Sylvia don't have to tussle like Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton in Monster's Ball, Forster's last feature, but it would have been nice if they trembled once or twice. Depp and Winslet are pleasant to watch, as are the actors who play the Davies boys, but they haven't been pushed to their limits. Although these two adults are surely up to pantomiming repression, Forster doesn't direct them to show what their characters cannot say. Unlike Daniel Day-Lewis's frustrated lover in Martin Scorsese's Age of Innocence, similarly a prisoner of his time, Barrie doesn't nuzzle Sylvia's wrist or breathe in her perfume. The glaze on his face never cracks.

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