Sunday, April 4, 2010

Books And Other Arts Film Review: Finding Neverland

Movie poster image courtesy of Wikimedia and JasonAQuest


Today is Easter Sunday. For children in America, the Easter bunny has visited overnight and left brightly colored eggs and lots of candy, hidden and waiting to be discovered. (Hopefully before it melts!) Some of you reading this may not realize that I am the care-giver and housemate of an older brother, who functions as a child. I made for him an Easter basket of candy that has more chocolate than Switzerland and more eggs than any 5 chicken ranches put together. He's enjoying some chocolate eggs now as I write this.

It seemed right on such a holiday (aside from its religious significance, which is considerable for Christians like myself) to view "Finding Neverland". Released in 2004 and directed by Marc Forster, this film rightfully was nominated for several Academy Awards. The only thing I find puzzling is how it didn't sweep the field for wins. From Mr. Forster's direction, to the screenplay by David Magee, to the magnificent performances from every member of the cast, this is an incredible stellar effort.

At the opening of the film, playwright J.M. Barrie (portrayed by Johnny Depp at his finest) is seen on opening night of one of his plays, an abysmal flop. Although his wife, Mary (Radha Mitchell) gives him little, if any encouragement, he does get support from producer and friend Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman, in a small but pivotal role). The day after the opening, Barrie seeks solace in a park and is befriended by the youngest of a family of boys, Michael Lleweyn-Davies. Recounting the meeting at dinner to his wife, Barrie learns the family's father died and the widow is a woman from a prominent family, but now has little in the way of financial resources.

Barrie returns to the park and befriends the widow, Sylvia (the incomparable Kate Winslet) and finds great joy in playing with her four young sons, George, Jack, Peter, and Michael. Sylvia confides that Peter's not been the same boy at all since his father's death, and Barrie in turn, in a moment of spectacular intimacy speaks to her about the death of his elder brother, David, something he'd never spoken to anyone about.

Julie Christie as Sylvia's mother, Emma du Maurier (aunt of the famous Daphne, who authored novels) disapproves of Barrie's involvement with Sylvia's family, and expresses herself succinctly on the matter. Even one of Barrie's pals cautions him that "people are beginning to talk" about how Barrie spends more time with Sylvia and her family than with his own wife. Eventually Mary does leave Barrie for another man, something that apparently scandalized London society, but was something of which Barrie himself barely takes notice. Sylvia and her family take up residence in Barrie's summer cottage outside of London, and at that time he notices she's taken ill with a cough that will not subside, and she refuses to cooperate with a doctor Barrie engages to exam her; the doctor urges a stay in a hospital for some tests.

Barrie is about to stage a new play, and invites Sylvia's family to the opening. He also tells Frohman he'd like an additional 25 seats in the house reserved, scattered throughout the theater. At a dress rehearsal, George, the eldest of the boys, appears with them in tow, and asks for a word with Barrie privately. He reveals to Barrie that upon their return to their home in London, his mother is now much sicker and had asked him to take the boys out for the afternoon. In playing with the rigging that will eventually make the actors "airborn", George falls and breaks his arm. He won't permit the hospital to set his arm unless Sylvia submits to some further testing in the matter of her own health.

While trying to organize the boys on the opening night of the play "Peter Pan", Sylvia is stricken gravely ill. She sends Peter to the play, telling him he must take it all in and report back to her about it. Barrie, when informed what's happened, goes to her home and is almost barred by her mother, but George intervenes and tells his grandmother she must permit Barrie to see his mother. The 25 seats Barrie had reserved, by the way, were for orphans. Planting them throughout the audience, they laugh at appropriate times when the onstage antics are funniest, and allow the adults in the audience to find their own "inner child" and laugh along, too.

I'll not reveal more about the plot. I'll just say the scenes I thought most effective and poignant in all the film were those in which Barrie talks about his brother's death, and George and Barrie have a private discussion at the dress rehearsal. The depths of emotions conveyed by Depp and young Freddie Highmore, as Peter Llewelyn-Davies is unlike anything else I've ever witnessed onscreen and the film is worth all if only to see the two of them.

When viewing this film, I thought "How shall I end my review?" I shall end my review, dear readers, by quoting from the film itself. At an after-reception on opening night, Barrie finds young Peter Llewelyn-Davies and asks "Did you like it?". The young Master Llewelyn-Davies responds "It was magical! Thank you!"

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