Finding Neverland

Finding Neverland

Curse you, Finding Neverland! Curse you for being a shamelessly manipulative tear-jerker! Curse you for every note of your sappy soundtrack coming in at just the right moment to reduce your audiences to a blubbering mess! Curse you for hauling out every old trick in the book and still turning me into a choking, sobbing idiot just like everybody else in the theatre.

This stately weepie concerns J.M. Barrie, the Victorian playwright who became a legend after penning the classic Peter Pan. Finding Neverland is a fictionalized account of Barrie's friendship with the Llewellyn-Davies family - namely, the five boys with whom he spent a great deal of playtime - and how that friendship inspired him to write Pan. Yes, I said five boys, though this film inexplicably reduces the number to four. More crucially, in reality both of the parents were very much alive when Barrie befriended them; I presume that in order to shift the Victorian tut-tutting away from the darker notion that Barrie was enraptured with little boys to the more dramatically acceptable scandal of the married Barrie cozying up to another woman, the Finding Neverland team bumps off Mr. Arthur Llewellyn-Davies before the film even starts, leaving Mrs. Sylvia Llewellyn-Davies a widow fetching enough to lure the lonely Barrie away from his frigid wife. Well, that's Hollywood for you. According to a friend, the original script to Finding Neverland spent more time on the uneasy notion that Barrie liked those little boys a bit too much. Naturally, a film that makes a pedophile out of a beloved children's author is depressing, and not good holiday (or Oscar) fodder. (For the record, the Llewellyn-Davies boys - who stayed friends with Barrie throughout their lives - insisted that he was as innocent as they.) So I'll forgive the filmmakers for dropping this creepy plot in favor of telling a wistful story about the power of imagination.

The actors, for their part, seem to be in on the joke: not for a moment did I feel any actual romantic tension between Johnny Depp (as Barrie) and Kate Winslet (as Sylvia); they don't give so much as a smoldering glance at each other and, innocent though his intentions may be, Depp's Barrie is clearly much closer to the boys than to their mother. But any whiff of scandal is quickly snuffed out the moment Winslet starts coughing, when the film heads deeply and irretrievably into Kleenex Territory. As I inferred, my heartstrings were tugged as much as anybody else's, dammit, so for that reason alone I guess I'll recommend Finding Neverland to those who want a good cry at the movies. Though it's not as genuine in tone, or as literary, it belongs in the same category as 1993's Shadowlands. And for God's sake, if you haven't seen that film, and you want to bawl until your nose runs, then watch it immediately.