Saturday, April 28, 2012

Book-to-film review: "Finding Neverland"

I was recently in a bookshop whose owner was playing some hauntingly familiar music. After enquiring I discovered that it was the soundtrack to "Finding Neverland," a film I'd found absolutely entrancing, having read the original Barrie tale a few years earlier. 

I love doing book-to-film reviews and here's one on "Finding Neverland" that I wrote a few years ago:

Tinkerbell was about to die. Peter Pan, in desperation, turned to his 1903 opening night audience and cried: “If you believe in fairies, clap your hands!” The response was thunderous and Tink was saved. “All children, except one, grow up,” but if they loose their child-like faith in make-believe, all is lost. So goes the theme of the enchanting film “Finding Neverland.”

The film’s central tension, between the child and the grown-up, between belief and unbelief, is led by the story’s quintessential child, playwright James Barrie (Johnny Depp). When he meets widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four rambunctious boys, Barrie creates imaginative worlds for them all to play about in, much to the chagrin of the film’s arch adults, Sylvia’s mother, Emma Du Marier (Julie Christie) and Barrie’s wife, Mary (Radha Mitchell). Despite grown-up disapproval, the friendship between Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies family continues and their inventive Indian and Pirate worlds begin to expand the Peter Pan story forming in Barrie’s mind..

All the boys join in the make-believe but one: Peter Llewelyn Davies (Freddie Highmore) refuses to play at play. He is grieving over his father’s recent death; perhaps if he grows up, he won’t hurt anymore. Perhaps if he had been already grown-up, the adults in his life wouldn’t have lied to him about his father’s condition. Now he will only engage in dry truth, nothing pretend. While Barrie patiently coaxes Peter into the land of make-believe, (going so far as to give his forthcoming protagonist Peter’s name) we too find ourselves longing to go to Neverland. Where is it? How do we get there? In a word: imagination.

Director Marc Forster gloriously brings imagination, and the play, “Peter Pan,” to life by letting us inside Barrie’s mind; we watch ordinary things turn magical until we (and Barrie’s Edwardian audience) find ourselves in a place where “happy thoughts” and fairy dust defy gravity and adventures abound. Was Neverland a set on a London stage with actors dressed as dogs, pirates and crocodiles? Or is “Neverland” something more, something intangible? The play debuted over one hundred years ago and we still don’t know the answer to that question nor has the story has ever lost its grip on our consciousness.

This most recent and enchanting effort to grapple with the story of the boy who would never grow old boasts a magnificent cast. Depp gives a marvelous understated performance. Winslet’s character magically combines pragmatic motherhood with childlike wonder, and her “boys” bring an extremely winning piece of ensemble work to the screen. Particularly compelling is Freddie Highmore, who plays the grieving Peter with heartbreaking realism. Radha Mitchell and Julie Christie are Neverland’s arch enemies, but their performances never descend into two-dimensionality. Dustin Hoffman is enjoyable as Barrie’s skeptical American producer, Charles Frohman (Frohman actually had tremendous faith in “Peter Pan” from the start but depicting him as initially unbelieving adds interesting dramatic tension).

Where or what is Neverland? This film doesn’t tell us exactly. It comes close to showing the genesis of “Peter Pan,” but tinkers too much with the actual Barrie-Llewelyn Davies story to approximate a docudrama, which was never the film’s purpose. It seeks instead to rekindle the wonder and rapture of Neverland for a 21st Century audience with the same power that it did for its first Edwardian theater-goers. On that level, it is an astounding success. “Finding Neverland” takes us on a journey so magical and touches us so deeply that by the film’s end, we are yearning for a sprinkling of fairy dust so that we too can follow the call, “second [star] to the right, and straight on till morning.”