Films based, or partially based, on a real person’s life always seem to get it wrong. Maybe it’s because they take liberties with historical truths or indulge a bit too much in myth-making, but biopics quite often are vehicles mostly used to serve previously established interests of a director and their bankrolling producers. This is the case of Finding Neverland, which although not a fully-fledged biography of J. M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, is based on real facts of a period of his life.
Directed by Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball), and scripted by David Magee from Alan Knee’s play, the film focuses on the period in Barrie’s life when he had the idea to write the archetypal story that would enter the western world’s imagination forever. Johnny Depp steps into the shoes of Barrie, a successful Scottish playwright in early 20th century London going through a bad patch, thanks to a critically unpopular play and a loveless marriage to the tense Mary, played by Radha Mitchell.
It’s amid this rather gloomy scenario that one fateful afternoon when he retreats to Kensington Gardens to write, Barrie befriends Sylvia Llewellyn Davies (Kate Winslet), a widow playing in the park with her four sons. He takes an instant liking to the boys and starts spending the afternoons with them, taking them into fantasy cowboy and Indian worlds until gradually the idea for Peter Pan and Neverland starts to take shape in his imagination. A suppressed love for Sylvia also begins to brew.
But director Forster, like a cake-maker with a sweet tooth, is not happy to explore the artistic creation, which would probably make a fascinating study, but concentrates on the saccharine-sweet family drama. Part of the action is centred on Emma du Maurier (played by Julie Christie), Sylvia’s mother, who opposes those encounters as people ‘were starting to talk’ and the chances that her daughter may find a new husband might be ruined. Meanwhile, Mary is becoming increasingly upset at his absence and starts looking for love elsewhere. To make things worse, it becomes clearer for the children and the viewer that Sylvia is seriously ill, another manoeuvre on the part of the director designed to crank up the audience’s emotions (in real life her illness came later).
Barrier convinces his producer (played by an incongruous Dustin Hoffman) to put on the play, which he does without disguising his concern that it may be another flop. To his relief, the play is an immense success. But of course, there’s Sylvia’s deteriorating health and she dies just after the opening, diverting the attention from the Barrier’s creation to another chapter of the family drama.
Finding Neverland is, ultimately, a ‘film with a message’: that we should keep our inner child alive and that if we believe in magic, it can happen. It is almost Spielbergian in its romantic treatment of fatherless childhood. You’re left wondering who this film is aimed at: it can’t be children, because it’s not fun enough, and adults will find the overly sentimental story overblown and patronising. It’s ironic that a film that advocates the powers of the imagination actually leaves nothing to it. If you really must see this movie, just remember to brush your teeth afterwards.