Next year, the long-awaited Charlie and the Chocolate Factory will arrive, with Johnny Depp inheriting the top hat from Gene Wilder, whose 1971 bizarro Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory has become an oddball classic. During the search for the right Wonka, I wondered who in Hollywood could blend strange, affectionate, magical, and gently disturbing without tipping the scales over into Creepyland and was actually disappointed when Depp won out. Although I was impressed with the range of roles he had played and the consummate dedication with which he embraced eccentricity within them, I still had not seen what I wanted in terms of pure heart. After seeing Finding Neverland, my reservations are allayed.
Armed with a soft and pleasingly Scottish brogue and an uncommon restraint, Depp plays J.M. Barrie, a frustrated novelist and playwright whose latest play is a flop and whose producer, Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman), is anxious to scrounge a quick success. Barrie is married to the beautiful but cold Mary (Radha Mitchell). It is a stilted, formal arrangement, complete with separate bedrooms and a long dinner table across which they sparsely converse.
One day, while walking in the park, Barrie comes across widowed mother Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four boys, and it is not long before his aching, starving heart is filled with affection for Sylvia and these sons that he never had. Barrie's affection for Sylvia is odd chaste, really and it is almost as though he loves her more as the mother she is to her boys than anything sexual or even romantic. This doesn't stop the rumor mill from kicking into high gear, not only for the impropriety of the married Barrie spending so much time with a recent widow but also with whispers about what he may be feeling for the boys. Sylvia's mother, Mrs. Emma du Maurier (Julie Christie), soon swoops down on her family to protect them from gossip and what she sees as Barrie's unhealthy influence. (He plays with the boys.)
Meanwhile, Barrie's literary imagination has been reignited. Sylvia's youngest son, Peter (Freddie Highmore), is a serious young man hardest hit by his father's death. He's a boy who didn't quite get to be a child, which inspires Barrie to write about a boy who is nothing but: Peter Pan. By creating a boy of perpetual youth, Barrie gets to live out some of the childhood he himself never got to experience, and it creates a fictitious "double" for whom young Peter Llewelyn Davies can live and imagine vicariously. But this feeling of youth is fleeting, for both Peter and Barrie must accept that Sylvia is ill. Peter may grow up with no parents, and Barrie may lose the one woman he can love as both mother and wife.
Thank God for Depp, who manages to live inside a man of limitless whimsy while restraining his delivery. Winslet, likewise, balances lightheartedness and the gravity of motherhood with soft bohemian flair, while Christie and Mitchell play cold women without resorting to villainy. Again, balance is key here. This film takes us to a magical land while simultaneously preparing us for a death. In Barrie's play, we see the wires that allow his characters to fly, and in director Marc Forster's (Monster's Ball) film, we know that those wires that hold Sylvia may soon be cut.
Finding Neverland brushes over the tragedy of Barrie's youth: His brother died while young, and the family's means of grieving were to call Barrie by the dead brother's name in a way, killing Barrie. Unmentioned are the fates of the Llewelyn Davies boys, who die in war or by suicide. Young Peter came to resent his namesake Pan, and the specter of pedophilia never left Barrie, though there is no evidence aside from rumors to substantiate the accusation. It's an ironic coincidence that a modern-day Peter Pan, Michael Jackson, literally built a Neverland and now faces the accusations in court that only haunted Barrie as gossip. Lesson to all: We must grow up sometime. But Finding Neverland succeeds because it doesn't pretend that the tragic before and after doesn't exist. Rather, it captures that in-between place where most of us live for a while when we're young our own Neverland before reality and work and finances and death make us grown-ups.