Finding Neverland is a fine film. Really, a fine film. Well made, well acted, well shot, well directed. And completely forgettable.
Great cast: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Dustin Hoffman, Julie Christie. I'm a big fan of all of them. Haven't a clue why they were in this film, though.
Critics seem to love it. The National Board of Review, I hear, said it was the year's best film. I came out of the theater feeling like I'd just seen a really good collection of fine china. Nice, but not exactly riveting.
The film tells the story of J.M. Barrie, author of the children's classic Peter Pan, but unsuccessful author of adult plays when we meet him in turn-of-the-century London. Hoffman is his quixotically patient producer, who keeps losing money on him, though it's never clear why.
Barrie (that is, Depp) takes up with a widow (that is, Winslet) and her sons. He's captivated with them and they with him. They cavort and frolic, and it's all completely innocent?#34;both with the boys and with the widow. We see the artist's imagination at work taking bits of reality and weaving them creatively into a world of fantasy, but this ground has been covered many times in films?#34;far better and with much greater passion in Shakespeare in Love. Nothing in this film breaks new ground or advances that theme.
Winslet plays a hard-headed woman who, in spite of the fact that her children were traumatized by the early death of their father, refuses to seek medical treatment for her own worsening consumption. Her condition provides the only real emotion in the film, but it's such a horribly worn plot device that the effect is minimal.
Christie is wasted as Winslet's stern mother. I've started calling these kinds of performances "reminder roles." Terrific actors like Hoffman and Christie pop up in subordinate roles that really aren't worthy of their talents as if to remind Hollywood and audiences that they're still around. Seeing them reduced to character actors in their later years is deflating.
It's pretty much a nothing role for Depp as well, other than allowing him to speak with a Scottish accent. The film is lovely to look at?#34;especially the climactic scene where, somehow, the back of the widow's house is removed and reveals a staged Neverland for her benefit. Perhaps we're supposed to believe that she's entering the "neverland" of her own imagination. Either way, it's pretty but passionless.
The only daring thing about the movie is depicting a close relationship between an adult and children who are not related. Though questions about the relationship are raised by "polite society" and alluded to in the film briefly, they are quickly dismissed. The current fears about child sexual abuse may explain why this film feels so sanitized.
The best performance, by the way, was given by Freddie Highmore, the child actor who plays Peter. Now that was a revelation.
Overall, though, if Finding Neverland is the best film of 2004, it was a fine, forgettable year indeed.