This guest review was contributed by J. Robert Parks.
It would be hard to find two more culturally distinct figures than J.M. Barrie and Alfred Kinsey. One was a Victorian, English dandy, the other was a 20th-century, Midwestern pragmatist. One was a playwright, the other a scientist and professor. One lived in the realm of the magical, the other in the laboratory of cold, somewhat hard facts. And while both were writers, Barrie is most famous for the enduringly popular Peter Pan tale, while Kinsey is best known for the popular-in-its-time Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Though the two men might be entirely different, their respective bio-pics provide an illuminating comparison on what makes a good film.
Finding Neverland is set in London 1903. Another of Barrie’s plays has opened disastrously, and his patron and impresario (played by Dustin Hoffman) is encouraging him (good naturedly) to find a hit. Barrie (Johnny Depp) is more interested in playing in the park, where he entertains children with his pantomime and by dancing with his dog. There, he meets the four Davies boys: George, Jack, Michael, and Peter. Peter is the most serious of them, not having gotten over the death of his father, but all of them, including their mother (played by the always enchanting Kate Winslet) are entranced by Barrie’s evocation of a fantastic place.
One of the great things about Finding Neverland is how it moves from the realistic to the magical. One moment, everyone’s playing Cowboys and Indians in the back yard, and the next moment director Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball) seamlessly places us in a gorgeous, artificial set. Forster does the same thing as we see Barrie writing Peter Pan from his experiences with the Davies boys. In a spectacularly gorgeous scene, a bedtime moment where the boys are jumping on their beds turns into the genesis of Peter Pan flying through the air. The movie relies on the old chestnut that writers find all their material from their own lives, but Forster and writers Allan Knee and David Magee use the device so naturally that it rings true.
The writing in Finding Neverland is sharp and witty, as you’d expect from a movie based on a play. In one scene, as Peter Davies has finally come out of his shell and written his own work, he remarks, “It’s a little bit of silliness,” and Barrie quickly responds, “I should hope so.” It helps enormously that Johnny Depp is the essence of charm. Imagine combining his Buster Keaton impersonation from Benny & Joon with his sashaying performance in Pirates of the Caribbean. And his tender scenes with Kate Winslet, who’s always fine as an alluring free spirit, are marvelous. The boys are perfectly played, and Julie Christie has a small role as the mean, old mother. Only an unnecessary coda breaks the spell. It’s as if Forster wanted to bring us back from Neverland, lest we never leave the theater.
I was anxious to leave the theater where Kinsey was playing. Not that the bio-pic is entirely wretched. Liam Neeson is strong as the famous sex researcher, and Laura Linney gives her usual fine performance as his long-suffering wife. And the supporting cast of Peter Sarsgaard, Chris O’Donnell, and Oliver Platt is up to the task. But Kinsey fails where Finding Neverland succeeds. It makes the mistake of trying to cover all of Kinsey’s life, from his childhood where he (of course) had issues with his domineering father (played as a straw man by John Lithgow) to his romance and marriage to his wife Clara to his discovery that there was (gasp) more to sex than he first realized to his fame and acclaim to his persecution by the powers that be (including the pompous, racist, homophobic Tim Curry) to his final and teary-eyed vindication. That’s a lot to cover in a two-hour movie, and so we glide along, hitting the high points and admiring Kinsey’s cavalier approach but never getting at the essence of the man.Kinsey does not shy away from the controversial aspects of the man’s life–his testy relationship with his son, his researchers’ uncomfortable experiences with his own theories, and his apparent coddling of a pedophile-but it presents them in ways (briefly and out of context) that manipulate us into ignoring those facts. Yes, he didn’t get along with his son, but look at all these amazing things he did. True, his own “open” ideas on sexuality proved disastrous for his assistants, but look at the great things he did. Well, it does appear he used gross child sexual abuse as a research tool, but look at the marvelous things he did. It’s like when Fox News brings out the token liberal and then claims to be fair and balanced. This is not a fair and balanced portrayal.
“So what?” you might ask. Finding Neverland certainly isn’t revealing any of Barrie’s warts. But Finding Neverland isn’t trying to be a biographical portrait. It’s much more interested in the Peter Pan myth and how the fantastic in art can inspire us to dreams in our own lives. Kinsey, on the other hand, is an historical document, one that’s attempting to shape our understanding of a pivotal figure of the 20th-century. But director Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) has an even broader agenda: to fire off a huge salvo in the culture wars by declaring Kinsey’s work “life saving.” Near the end of the film, after Neeson has enjoyed a Schindler’s List moment by crying over the people he couldn’t help, he meets an old lesbian, who declares (as if to the audience), “Things have gotten so much better since the publication of your book….You’ve saved my life, sir.” Now we do like our propaganda to be subtle, don’t we? As my friend Garth put it as we came out of the theater, “I feel like we should go watch Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm,” a movie that provides a more realistic assessment of Kinsey’s work.
On the other hand, as I came out of Finding Neverland, I wanted to write my own play or take a walk by the lake or have a long conversation with a friend. It’s a film that inspires you in the best ways. I heartily recommend it.
Finding Neverland, four stars; Kinsey, two stars