Johnny Depp knocks out another run with inspired biopic
Friday, November 12, 2004
by Alex Stroup, editor
I've never been a big Johnny Depp fan. My first exposure to him was through Tiger Beat photos pinned to my sisters' walls way back during his 21 Jump Street days, and that is likely to sour any young boy on a person. Until recently I had only really admired his performance in Donnie Brasco (1997).
Then something started to happen. Perhaps he finally physically matured into the seriousness he always conveyed, or he learned to hone his edginess into a sharp rather than a blunt tool. Regardless, he was good in Blow and From Hell (both 1999), both otherwise forgettable movies. Then last year he had two remarkable performances in Pirates of the Caribbean and Once Upon a Time In Mexico. He took both roles completely over the edge and safely into camp, somehow without tarnishing himself or the movie. On the basis of these characters it suddenly became possible to envision him as Willy Wonka in next year's remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Looking at this, though, you end up wondering if Depp can pull it back in and play it relatively straight, without losing his edge or his charisma. Finding Neverland answers this question categorically.
This is a meditation on how life events may have provoked J.M. Barrie to write Peter Pan, one of the most successful plays of all time. This is not the true life story of Barrie, but rather the inspired life story. While the real Barrie was certainly a child-like soul, Depp's Barrie is too pure, at time reminding one almost of Being There's Chance (Peter Sellers, 1979) in his indifference to life's complexities.
This isn't a drawbackit simply sets the tone as fantasy; this isn't the story of how Peter Pan came to be, rather it is the projection of Peter Pan's meaning into the framework of J.M. Barrie's life. Depp's performance brings this to life to an extent I wouldn't have thought possible.
From Barrie's real biography, we know that Peter Pan was named after Peter Davies, one of several children of the Davies family. Barrie inserts himelf into this family, forming strong relationships with all the chidlren and Sylvia Davies (Kate Winslet), their mother. This relationship is resented by Sylvia's husband, Arthur, and Barrie's wife Mary. It is Barrie's loving, though platonic, relationship with Sylvia that is the center of the movie.
Literary license has killed off Arthur prior to Barrie's arrival on the scene, and also moved forward Barrie's own marital problems by several years. In a straight biopic, these changes would be troublesome, but again, this isn't about Barrie, but rather what Barrie's crowning achievement means. For this reason, Finding Neverland is a film that should be heartily recommended to young adults. As they go through school, they'll be continuously asked about novels and stories; what does it mean; what is the author saying here. These questions will be hated, and many will doubt that subtext really exists in the mind of the author but is rather a creation of the reader.
Films like Finding Neverland quell these doubts. Showing that literary examination is not a waste of time, and even if more a reader construction than authorial intent, it is an exercise that leads to unexpected rewards. Finding Neverland not only sheds light behind the genious of J.M. Barries but explains why Peter Pan touches so many.
Imagination plays an important role, and director Marc Forster creatively brings this to the screen in scenes blending fantasy and reality. The fantasy is sharply realized, but without falling into the trap of pretending that imagination can become reality. The visual staging has just the right falseness to keep in mind that imagination isn't to replace, but rather to augment the real.
Having just directed the explicit - in so many ways - Monster's Ball (2001), Forster was an daring choice to helm this story, and as with Depp, shows unexpected restraint that makes for a better movie.
Beyond Depp's outstanding performance (the field is probably too crowded to hope for another Best Actor nomination, but it is a worthy go) and Forster's visuals, there isn't a whole lot worth noting. Young Freddie Highmore does a pretty good job as Peter Davies; in fact, Depp thought so well of him that he landed the part of Charlie for Highmore in the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remake. Kate Winslet fine as always, but is too graceful through hardship for one to really connect with the audience.
It was surprising to see Dustin Hoffman willing to have anything to do with another Peter Pan movie; one would think Hook was more than enough for any actor. His appearance as Barrie's producer is small, and almost a distraction to have such a name filling it.
If you have any interest in Peter Pan you should definitely show up for this movie. Though knowledge of Barrie's real foibles will shed light on some things the movie only alludes to (such as excessive fondness for brussels sprouts, the horrible cricket team he founded, and life-long impotency), it isn't necessary for enjoying the story as presented. Younger children will likely find most of the movie boring with some highlights in the staging of the play within the movie, though other than exploring issues of death and marital dissolution, there isn't much that parents would generally find objectionable.
In many ways, J.M. Barrie was the man who never grew up, and yet had an adult's genious for sharing his vision. Depp and Forster have done a fine job of combining the reality and the imagination.
Send Alex your thoughts, questions, or comments here.
Finding Neverland is a Miramax release.
Wide theatrical release:Friday, November 12, 2004.
Directed by Marc Forster.
Screenplay by David Magee.
Starring Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Rhada Mitchell, and Freddie Highmore.
Rated mild thematic elements and brief language.
Running time: 100minutes
Alex's Rating: 7 out of 10
Alex Stroup is a degreed librarian with an undergraduate degree in history. An avid reader, movie buff, and devoted information junkie, Alex currently lives and works in the Northern California Bay Area. Alex is also the CEO of MousePlanet.
Click here to contact Alex.