Finding Neverland
Directed by Marc Forster
Screenplay by David Magee, adapted from an original play by Allan Knee

The new film from director Marc Forster, who directed the very well-received Monster's Ball, is a big departure from the dark and difficult tone of his earlier film. Adapted from a stage play by Allan Knee by screenwriter David Magee, the story is "based on actual events" in the life of J. M. Barrie, author of the now classic play Peter Pan.

Mixing Masterpiece Theater-style costume drama and bio-pic with a generous dollop of magical realism, the result is a beautiful looking but rather uneven and sadly vague portrait of the imagination that spawned one of the most resonant of 20th Century cultural icons. The man who made-up Peter Pan was undoubtedly both a gifted writer and a complex human being. Unfortunately, the movie fails to convey much of either.

When Finding Neverland represents itself as "based on actual events" it does so because it plays unusually fast and loose with biographical truth. The actual J.M.Barrie was a presentable-enough little fellow - standing about five feet tall - but he was certainly no Johnny Depp (who plays him). Sylvia, the mother of the Llewelyn-Davies family of boys whom he befriended was not a widow, but in fact, a married woman - and there were five boys, not four as in the film.

Moreover, although Barrie's wife did in fact leave him for another man, that happened ten years after Peter Pan was written, not simultaneously, as it does here. And most tellingly, Sylvia Llewelyn-Davies (Kate Winslet) was not an invalid and did not die of an unspecified condition during the run of Peter Pan, but of cancer, some six years later.

While it is unfair to fault the film - which carefully discounts any claim of historical accuracy - for these divagations, they are indications of what ultimately makes the film less successful than it ought to be. The writers who have translated, edited and embellished Barrie's life for the screen have robbed it of some of its paradox and mystery and substituted a much more "understandable" and "acceptable" protagonist, who is, in his fictional predictability, much less interesting.

The actual J.M. Barrie was a stunted, weak and sickly boy, growing up in the shadow of a handsome, athletic brother seven years his senior. When this brother died suddenly in an accident at the age of just about fourteen, the family was devastated - particularly Barrie's mother, who was overcome by grief and depression from which she never recovered, and from which Barrie himself could do nothing to lift her.

This is clearly the stuff of high drama - but the film only makes a brief, passing reference to it. The death of the brother, David, the boy who "never grew up" because he didn't survive childhood, can only have been a pivotal and compelling event in Barrie's inner life, but we see very little of it here. Instead we see Barrie scribbling endlessly in his notebooks - although we are never allowed to learn exactly what he is writing - and befriending a family of young boys.

The film-Barrie arouses the suspicions of his social circle by befriending a widow while himself still married, and on top of that, spending much of his time with her pre-adolescent sons. There is a moment in the film when the character of Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes and a great friend of Barrie) remarks on the "talk" that is going around. In the film, the Barrie character bluntly dismisses it, and that is the last we hear of it.

Surely in such a conventional society as that of late Victorian Britain (even in a fictionalized version) an audience ought to expect that such talk must have had far more persistence and influence than that. Surely a thoughtful and generally conformist man like Barrie (even the film's fictional Barrie) would be troubled by such talk, and feel more concern than just to dismiss it out of hand.

For the real Barrie, with his drastically interrupted relationship with his brother and his unsatisfying ties to his mother, involved in a loveless and apparently largely sexless marriage, the relationships among the Llewelyn-Davies family and between its members and himself must have resonated with a complex welter of responses. It is unfortunate that the film that emerges "based on" this life opts for vague generalities and easy platitudes, rather than exploring the complicated and perhaps somewhat dark undertones of this unusual menage.

I'm not suggesting that the writers should have invented some artificial, speculative subtext - that would have been silly. But I am wondering why the film - about a fascinating and creative man at the peak of his powers, throwing himself into a very unconventional situation - seems so lifeless and two-dimensional. My guess is that it is because the writers chose to "play it safe" with some of the most difficult questions that Barrie's life - and particularly the situation surrounding his relationship with the Llewelyn-Davieses and the creation of Peter Pan - evokes.

What makes the film both watchable and frustrating is the amount of talent that has been expended in pursuit of something that doesn't quite come off. The production values are very high - to the best Merchant-Ivory standard. Costumes, sets, props - all are delectable eye-candy.

The camera work is first-class - not too showy, but with a few well-placed flourishes that enhance the visual aspect of the film tremendously. The frame composition is careful and purposeful, and the interjection of CGI effects is in most cases smooth and appropriate (although the literality of the "magical realist" effects is a bit confusing in a film that is supposed to be about the power of imagination).

Unfortunately fitting, given the over-wrought nature of some of the writing, is a bloated and manipulative score by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek (with a contribution from Sir Elton John) - punctuated by some excellent uses of existing music, particularly the evocative piano piece that runs under the end credits.

The performances are very good - the best thing in the film, really - anchored by yet another dedicated, focused effort from Johnny Depp. He is given little to work with here - the contained nature of Victorian upbringing left little room for "self-expression," and Barrie, at least as depicted here, seems to have put far more of his "personality" into his work than he did into his life. Yet Depp makes Barrie's lip-biting, repressive, self-censorship believable and brings as much of the confusion and ambivalence of the character into view as the script allows.

Depp affects a Scots accent for the character, and does it with an effortless skill few of his contemporaries can match. Some of his interactions with the boys are among the brightest and most spontaneous moments in the film . Unfortunately others - including some of those most critical to the story - are infused by the writers with a maudlin sentimentality. To the effect that it is possible to overlook the "Dickensian" excesses of the writing and directing, it is Depp's concentration and powerful conviction that makes it so.

Kate Winslet is attractive and affecting as Sylvia. Although little chemistry seems to develop between her character and Depp's, that could be seen as telling character choice, given the many overlapping levels of social and personal relationships. She combines a correct exterior with an undercurrent of rebellion, fueled by a powerful emotional attachment to her sons - which is another of the most authentic and strongest elements here.

Julie Christie, as Winslet's high-strung, domineering Victorian mother, Lady du Maurier, gives a lovely performance in support of establishing the difficulties and tensions that a relationship such as that between the main characters must have created in their immediate circle. She manages the transition from forbidding Gorgon to somewhat less forbidding and slightly vulnerable Gorgon better than the writer does. Radha Mitchell plays Barrie's wife, Mary, with an appropriately Victorian stiffness but with a sense of sympathy and longing that still doesn't offer much explanation of why Barrie virtually abandoned his relationship with her.

Dustin Hoffman has a small part as Barrie's producer that he obviously relishes. He produces some of the finest dry humor in the film and gives a glimpse into the world that was actually central to Barrie's life, as the most successful playwright of his time in England, producing hit after hit - a sort of Victorian Neil Simon.

It is hard to know exactly what happened here. Certainly someone should have restrained the tear-jerking, reductionist tendencies of screenwriter Magee. Director Forster, seeing the talent he had at hand, might have steered his cast in more inventive, daring and dangerous directions, even in counterpoint with the script.

Exploring the emotional inner-landscape of people who had factual histories and lives is always difficult and ambiguous. Trying to eliminate the messiness of actual life in favor of producing a concise, filmable narrative that bears some resemblance to historical fact is an enormous challenge. These filmmakers have made a strong effort and produced a decent film - but it is disappointing, given who they are and what they might have had to work with, that they didn't take a few more chances and reach further.

That's my take on it. What's yours?