One of the most difficult tasks for biographical filmmakers to accomplish has always been documenting the life of a writer. Writing is such a personal activity that showing it on film would usually bore audiences to death, unless heavy-handed techniques like voiceovers and flashbacks are used.
Finding Neverland manages to avoid these negatives while showing the life of Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie, played with subdued honesty by the usually wild Johnny Depp. Barrie’s life is an especially interesting one, allowing for the film to focus less on the actual writing and more on how he got the ideas for his masterpiece.
Barrie was a fairly well known playwright in London, but his recent work lacked motivation until he met a single mother and her four children in a park where he often wrote his plays. He started spending his days playing with the children, creating stories to tell them and encouraging them to think of stories as well.
As his relationship with the boys grew stronger, his own marriage started to fall apart. Barrie’s wife understood that he was at his happiest when he was with the boys, not with her, and eventually left him. He spent even more time with the family, but at least in the movie, never got into a romantic relationship with the mother (Titanic’s Kate Winslet), making his bond with the children even more unique.
Barrie acts as more of a best friend character to the children than he does a father. The main connection they have is through imagination. Barrie teaches them to use their imagination, which can place them in any story he tells or any game they play. Through his time with them, he learns to better use his own imagination, which is what ultimately results in Peter Pan.
The film does a great job of showing how Barrie’s relationship with the four kids led to his writing Peter Pan. Depp portrays Barrie as a likeable enough guy, but he is somewhat cold and removed until the kids teach him what’s important again. He especially bonds with the youngest child, Peter, for whom he names his play.
The children in Peter Pan don’t want to grow up, a direct reflection on Barrie himself, who wishes he were a kid again. Each of the children develops his own personality throughout the film, and all four are excellently cast in their roles. Depp is good as always, and the often-overlooked Winslet could earn a fourth Oscar nomination for her supporting role.
Finding Neverland is a rare literary period piece that can be emotional without being overly dramatic. Kids will enjoy the playful parts and the focus on imagination, while adults will like the depth of the characters and the heartfelt emotion. Overall, Finding Neverland manages to combine entertainment with quality storytelling, just like J.M. Barrie did.
Shawn Wines can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.