Peter Pan, is of course, the immensely popular story of a boy who wouldn’t grow up. The Internet Movie Data Base lists 8 movies with that title, and there are many more films that have been made using the same story. It actually began as an immensely popular play on the London stage. Finding Neverland is the film based on the plays author, JM Barrie and his relationship with the Davies family and how they inspired Barrie to write the play.
We begin the film finding Barrie (Johnny Depp) having just completed the staging of a very expensive, new play, which also turns out to be a bomb. His marriage is falling apart because while Barrie is himself a childlike man, his wife seems to be very much the adult who cannot participate in her husband’s whims and dreams. Enter Sylvia Davies (Kate Winslet), a widow trying to support four children with very little money. Barrie immediately falls in love with her children. He takes them to the park, plays cowboys and Indians, dances with bears, and indulges every childlike fantasy they can dream up. He is every bit the child they are. They in turn are the muses for his next play. Throughout the film, we see the children acting out bits, we know of from Peter Pan. We see his inspiration on celluloid.
This is a good, well made film. It is aptly directed, and the actors all do fine jobs. My English friend notes that Depp does a decent job with a Scottish accent, and as always, the remainder of his performance is top notch.
My problem with the film lies within the characterization of Barrie, himself. He is made out to be a wonderful, beautiful dreamer. A man who has the heart of a child. He is someone who lives in his imagination. We see the world through his eyes. While dancing in the park with his dog, we see it transform into a circus and the dog into a bear. Anyone who dares to question his fancies, to expect him to act as an adult, is shown in a unfavorable light. Both Barries’ wife, Mary (Rahda Mitchell) and Davies’ mother, Emma Du Maurier (Julie Christie) do not care for Barrie’s behavior and both are made out to be villains. Yet his behavior is to be frowned upon. A married man gallivanting about town with a widow and her children is neither acceptable nor Right.
The film does its best to show us that the Barries’ marriage is not doing well besides the problems with the Davies household. They quibble about other issues and we can tell there has not been much love under that roof for quite some time. It is also quick to point out that the relationship between Barrie and Ms. Davies is anything but sexual. In fact Barrie seems to be quite asexual. There is never a hint of masculinity or sexuality portrayed at all. But these are all excuses for allowing a grown, married man to spend all of his time with a woman who is not his wife, and four children who are not his own.
The film wants us to believe. It wants us to believe that life is worth dreaming about. That the eyes of a child can see mysterious forgotten by the likes of grown ups. That they contain a secret joy we too, could experience if only we believed. It also wants us to see that if we do not behave as children, if our minds are lost in the responsibilities of adults, than we are missing out on life. It is hard to refute such beliefs. Life is hard. To be able to escape into a world of pirates and fairies is a miraculous thing. We should all be able to slip into the world of fantasy and make believe for just awhile and let the stress of being and adult slip away. But, there is the cusp of the matter, we can slip away and dream for a time, but life demands that we return. It is irresponsible and shameful to drop the responsibilities of our life, to live our fantasies. To leave the bonds of marriage for another woman, even if you never technically have an affair, is irredeemable. To accept and love a character for doing that very thing is irresponsible.
All of this is not to say that Finding Neverland is without merit. In fact it is an enjoyable, well made film. It is an interesting portrait of the author of one of the English languages most beloved stories. Barrie, as seen here, was a gifted, flawed man. It is a beautiful thing to see a man filled with such whimsy. But we must be careful not to believe that being whimsical gives us the freedom to give up on being grown up.