I don’t know whether you have ever seen a map of a person’s mind. Doctors sometimes draw maps of other parts of you, and your own map can become intensely interesting, but catch them trying to draw a map of a child’s mind, which is not only confused, but keeps going round all the time. There are zigzag lines on it, just like your temperature on a card, and these are probably roads in the island, for the Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes of colour here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut fast going to decay, and one very small old lady with a hooked nose. It would be an easy map if that were all, but there is also first day at school, religion, fathers, the round pond, needle-work, murders, hangings, verbs that take the dative, chocolate pudding day, getting into braces, say ninety-nine, three-pence for pulling out your tooth yourself, and so on, and either these are part of the island or they are another map showing through, and it is all rather confusing, especially as nothing will stand still. — J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan
That is how J. M. Barrie introduces the idea of the Neverland in the novel version of his classic Peter Pan. In Marc Forster’s Finding Neverland, based on the Allan Knee stage play The Man Who Was Peter Pan, Mr. Barrie (Johnny Depp) is asked by Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) what Neverland is, but he doesn’t say anything half so sparkling as that.
In the film, Barrie’s description of Neverland comes off like Judy Garland singing wistfully about how lovely everything must be somewhere over the rainbow. The Neverland the real Barrie wrote about it is more like the Oz to which Dorothy was actually taken by the cyclone, with witches and poison poppies and men made of tin or straw and flying monkeys all hugger-mugger. Barrie’s Neverland, like his book, is a Saturday night bubble bath with endless castles, clouds, and caves in the bubbles waiting to be explored. Forster’s Neverland, like his film, is a relaxing hot tub, which is also nice, but not the same thing.
The film tells the highly fictionalized story about how Barrie came to write the play Peter Pan as a result of a special friendship with the four young sons of the widowed Mrs. Llewelyn Davies. (In reality, there were five brothers and Mrs. Llewelyn Davies was not yet a widow when she met Mr. Barrie.)
The film depicts Barrie coming into the Llewelyn Davies boys’ lives like Robin Williams into the lives of his students in Dead Poets Society. This isn’t a story about magical childhood soaring where no adult can follow, but about a magical adult imparting the gift of imagination to children. Their summertime games of pirates and Indians may indeed be the inspiration for the play Barrie goes on to write, but the inspiration is all Barrie’s.
Alas, the script never allows Barrie to display the imaginative originality that he brought to writing Peter Pan. His games with the boys are all rather ordinary: They play pirates and Indians, but there is never an adventure or story in which someone loses his shadow, for instance, or sails to safety in a bird’s nest. Barrie never toys with the boys’ sense of the absurd by discussing how their mother tidies up their thoughts at night while they sleep, or chides them for their lack of imagination on the grounds that their unbelief will kill a fairy somewhere. Depp wears war paint and feathers to be an Indian chief and a bandana for a pirate, but his sense of whimsy is really, in a basic sense, rather prosaic.
Of all the boys, it is Peter (Freddie Highmore), namesake of Peter Pan, who is the most whimsy-deprived and prematurely grown up of the brothers. He’s a wary young lad who is most insistent on the line between reality and fantasy, and has no use for the latter. Presumably this means he is most in need of Barrie’s attention. (No mention is made of Wendy’s origins in Barrie’s friendship with young Margaret Henley, daughter of writer William Henley, who died at age six and who called Barrie her friend or “fwendy-wendy.” Barrie is often credited for inventing the name Wendy, though in fact it already existed and he merely popularized it.)
It would be hard to imagine a vision of childhood more at odds with Barrie’s own. “Gay and innocent and heartless” is how Barrie described the perennial condition of youth in the final line of Peter Pan; he saw it as a time of magic and cruelty, of unfettered imagination and boundless egotism. Whatever moved Barrie to write those words, it surely wasn’t this big-brother relationship with the decorous creatures in this film.
Indifferent to matters of social propriety and appearances, Barrie little perceives or cares how the unconventional closeness of a married man to a widowed mother and (even more) her young sons is construed by an uncharitable world. Others care more, including Barrie’s own society-minded wife Mary (Radha Mitchell) and Sylvia’s stern mother Emma du Maurier (Julie Christie), who fears that Barrie’s presence in her family’s life may spoil Sylvia’s chances at another match.
To Forster’s credit, he doesn’t entirely let Barrie off the hook for neglecting his marriage, nor does he portray his wife Mary as entirely unsympathetic. It seems that their marriage has never been very happy, but Mary makes a heartfelt plea to her husband to give them a chance to hold it together — to come home to her at dinnertime after work, rather than spending all his spare time with the Llewelyn Davieses. On one particular fateful occasion he has a reasonable excuse for arriving home too late, but by that point it’s understandable that Mary should no longer be there to hear it.
As the soft-spoken, gravely childlike Barrie, Depp manages a difficult balancing act, creating a character who prefers playing with children to the grown-up world that is eccentric and playful rather than immature or creepy. No mean feat, in a day when the very word Neverland evokes another name far more tragic than that of Peter Pan. Winslet is warmly maternal and appealing as Sylvia, and young Freddie Highmore is heartbreakingly unaffected as Peter. In supporting roles, Christie brings a level of humanity to the two-dimensional role of Mrs. du Maurier, and Dustin Hoffman is entertaining as Barrie’s producer.
Time and tragic circumstances eventually bring a new level of responsibility to Barrie’s relationship to the Llewelyn Davies boys, and there’s a nice counterpoint to all the business about “never growing up” as one of the boys takes a step toward adulthood by taking initiative in a mature way at a key turning point.
It’s pleasant enough, but there’s never any sense of of revelation, of real insight into Barrie or Peter Pan. Brief excursions into magical realism in which the imaginary becomes real are occasionally inspired (the best images are the spectacular mechanical sea in the pirate sequence and the inexhaustible image from Peter Pan itself of the children floating out the bedroom window) but sometimes fall flat, including the first case (a circus scene with a dancing bear) and, alas, a climactic revelation during a private staging of Peter Pan.
In the end, Finding Neverland falls back on imagination and metaphor in the face of death itself. Thus a character is told that someone who has died has “gone to Neverland,” and that to visit the departed in Neverland one need only “believe.” It’s a word that, between this movie and The Polar Express, has been taking a beating lately.
In my Polar Express review I pointed out that for those who watch Peter Pan and clap their hands to affirm that they “believe” in fairies, “belief” in fairies may be understood as a metaphor for childlike wonder. I’m as much a kid at heart as any grownup I know, and no one loves play, fantasy and imagination more than I do. But there’s a time for playing pretend, and there’s a time when we need to face whatever it is that we actually believe about reality. No matter what that may be, the death of a loved one is no time to be clapping your hands and believing in fairies.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.