Finding Neverland (2004)

This small budget film appeared out of nowhere last fall (along with other small films like Million Dollar Baby, Sideways and Hotel Rwanda), captured the hearts of many, and went on to receive countless nominations and awards for writing, costumes, and performances. Well deserved, I must say, especially since the film doesn’t try to force strong emotions from you, it just happens to be powerful and simple at the same time.

Johnny Depp (once again acting with his face and not his voice) plays James Matthew Barrie, a playwright in early 1900s, looking for the one big hit, for the one story that will work great on stage, and will bring in audiences night after night. The movie opens with an opening night of yet another of Barrie’s plays. His manager Charles, played by Dustin Hoffman is irreverently optimistic as he ushers people into the theater, his wife Mary (played by Radha Mitchell) is sitting all by herself, and the author is restless behind the curtain, pacing with his cane, peeking at the audience, worrying about the reception. The play opens and most likely will close shortly. A miss. The manager brings up the cold truth about the business of putting together a stage show; the wife complains that she misses her husband, and Barrie goes back to drawing board. He needs a captivating story, a fable. Ne needs a magical fairytale.

He soon finds it in a family of four boys with a widow. They meet in a park where Barrie walks his dog, and the kids instantly connect with an odd, fantasizing author. They immediately become his audience, absorbing every fantastic idea he comes up with. Similarly, he finds an outlet for his ideas, no matter how unusual. Their mother (Kate Winslet) is just happy she doesn’t have to run after four troublemakers around the clock.

The movie is largely about the creative process, something I find fascinating. How do people some up with theories, inventions, paintings, scents, cooking recipes? What is their muse, how do they relate to it, how do they experiment with it? What kind of dependency is it? A few recent movies have shown us genius at work (Pollock, Beautiful Mind), and in Finding Neverland, we’re treated to a few amazing sequences. Barrie is describing a scene to his audience (kids, wife, manager) on a bare stage, or in an empty field, and at the same time, there are glimpses of how this scene plays out in his head, with visual effects, wire works, stunts. This is an old technique, to undercut parallel events in real-time, and when it’s done well, you remember it long after leaving the theater. Sure, the scenes Barrie tells are straight from his famous book, Peter Pan, and we all know them by heart. However, this ability to see it with his eyes makes this movie worth watching. We know that the boys fly out of their bedroom window, what we don’t know is how Barrie arrived at that, and how he implemented it on a theater stage.

It’s not all about creating characters and a play, of course. Barrie is a famous person around town, and his association with a widow with four children gets all kinds of attention, creates gossip and misunderstandings with his wife. But what do you do if your muse is a “forbidden fruit”? And how much freedom can you give to a faithful husband who spends day after day with another family? Finally, how do you respond to a gentleman who volunteers his time for your kids, invites you over, and seems to love entertaining your family. Depp and Winslet are close friends – they understand each other, they help each other. But they are not alone in the universe, they’re judged, and treated differently because of their association. Things cannot be innocent, especially is they appear so. This aspect of class conflict is done very well in the movie – not blown up into a costume soap opera, but not dismissed either. I like that the writers decided to cover that part of their lives, and not just concentrate on the evolution of a play.

I also was impressed with the character of Barrie’s Manager (Dustin Hoffman). Here is a man who might be all about numbers, about revenue. but he gives Barrie slack, believes in his potential, and even though he counts every penny he spends on putting together the show, he keeps investing into it, and supporting Barrie in this process. I would like a manager like that. A businessman who knows the business, and has heart to take a risk or even a leap of faith. His amusement at Barrie’s ideas is genuine, and justified (do you know how much water you will need to show a sailing boat on stage?) but he goes along with the creative process, lets the author flesh out the story, the set, the characters.

The movie is a well-made drama, but you wouldn’t notice a monologue or a dialogue that’s set aside. You wouldn’t notice an elaborate set or costume, just begging to be admired. Everything flows and fits, and nothing cries for attention. The film is quiet and moving, intelligent but not snotty. I missed it when it was in theaters – films like that can only go on word of mouth. I recommend you catch it on DVD, or rental.

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