Johnny Depp has long been caught between worlds. A thoughtful, near-frighteningly gifted artist in a conventionally gorgeous form, he’s as compelling in pop fare (Nightmare on Elm Street, Pirates of the Caribbean) as in more adventurous, less seen films (Dead Man, Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas, From Hell, even the exceeding strange The Astronaut’s Wife). He’s one of People Magazine‘s Sexiest Man favorites, yet he can explain the trashing of hotel rooms to Letterman in a way that makes it seem a rational, if existential deed (from way back in the Kate Moss days: “Some hotel rooms just need to be trashed”).
As he’s recently started making movies that might appeal to children (having famously had two with Vanessa Paradis), Depp has revealed wondrous and sometimes startling new subtleties. Always a low-key player, even in the most outrageous of environments (think: Crybaby or Sleepy Hollow), he’s also managed a sort of perpetual inventiveness in his work—it’s as if you see him anew each time out. And so it may not be surprising that, in Finding Neverland, a movie that teeters between excess sentiment and charming nuance, Depp has found yet another level.
As James M. Barrie, the Scottish-born playwright most famous for imagining Peter Pan, Depp appears the consummately charismatic child-man. His refusal to “grow up” upsets his proper wife Mary (Radha Mitchell), who has her eye on social advancement. As the film opens in “London, 1903,” she has stopped appreciating his career, which has become more routine than splendid. (This even as it appears they once shared enthusiasm for the sheer drama of opening nights and homage paid to his celebrity, however small.) James’ patient producer, Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman), ensures that each new play is mounted, each opening to moderate notice and running for a limited engagement, until James conjures another and the ritual commences again.
“Inspired by true events,” and adapted by David Magee from Allan Knee’s play The Man Who Was Peter Pan, the film layers its versions of realties, in the form of shared expeditions, to and away from “neverland.” Focused on tensions between creation and commerce, the thrill of art, the emotional difficulties of daily engagements, it invites viewers to share in Barrie’s supple imaginings, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes beautifully. Both sorts of transportations work, in their ways. James, for his part, remains enchanted and heartened by the possibilities of theater, though also fretful over mundane career demands. This much is suggested in his first appearance, backstage, not quite wanting to look at the audience or even what’s on stage, mouthing the words along with the players, as he knows them so well, down to cadences and pauses. “They hate it,” he worries, unable to put a finger on what isn’t clicking and also unable to do something else.
Seeking inspiration or distraction, he finds both in the Llewellyn Davieses, a family of four boys (Jack [Joe Prospero], George [Nick Roud], Michael [Luke Spill], and Peter [Freddie Highmore]) and a single mother, Sylvia (Kate Winslet), he encounters in Kensington Gardens one sunny afternoon. In an effort to move the boys as he is so immediately moved by then, James engages the help of his enormous dog Porthos, to play a bear for a one-man play he puts on in the park (and eventually, to play the model for Nana, the dog who looks after Wendy and her brothers in Peter Pan). Sensitive Peter is especially difficult to console, as he still mourns the death of his father (in real life, Mr. Llewellyn Davies was alive during James’ early relationship with the family, but it’s easier and neater not to suggest competition). As James tries to win the boy over, indeed, to bring him back from the brink of adulthood-too-soon, he also finds in himself a previously untapped creativity and joy.
The film, directed by Marc Forster, works hard to convey these transformations, with scenes dissolving from fantasy to reality, stage play to child’s play. As James conjures the story of Peter and the Lost Boys aboard the pirates’ ship, the scene literalizes the dream and its construction at once, with antic artificial waves booming in the background, while Captain Hook looms over the children, demanding they claim their “pirate” names. When young Peter refuses, he does so out of his lingering sadness, his continued inability to imagine beyond his life’s tragedy. Of course, James will rouse the boy from his sorrow and allow him to rejoin his own childhood, only temporarily abandoned. (And the tale here does not comport with historical records, one of which notes that the boy Peter was long troubled, by this and other relatives’ deaths, disliked the play named for him, and eventually killed himself.)
While James is able to ignore (or at least reject) the world around him, in particular the gossip about his friendship with Sylvia, he also hopes he will win over her social-risk-averse mother, Mrs. Emma Du Maurier (Julie Christie). But he finds himself up against it when she begins ailing (indicated by that most worn out sign—an ominous cough and her attempt to hide it with her dainty hand). As Sylvia’s real-life body impinges on the whimsies that so buoy her boys’ newly energized lives, she also turns enormously gallant but not tragic (Winslet, always brave, here matches Depp’s unfussy, intelligent performance). If the movie does lay on the heart-rending, the performers hold back just enough to contain the just-about-to-bubble-over excess.
The film takes you where you might expect—an ideal initial staging of Peter Pan (with Kelly MacDonald as Peter, complete with mechanical hoists and fair dust). For this opening night, James takes no chances, but rather invites his desired viewers, a group of young orphans in sore need of amazing entertainment. Their reactions incite the proper responses in the adults seated around them, and yes, the point is made that seeing as children see might be the most effective way back to wonder and delight. If only.