I have always been a fan of Peter Pan. When I was a graduate student living in Kensington, London in the mid-1990’s, I made a literary pilgrimage one Sunday to pay homage to the boy who never grew up and the places that inspired the geography and magic of Neverland. I walked first to Kensington Gardens and then to nearby Hyde Park and the Serpentine to see the island of the lost boys and finally to the wistful statue of Peter Pan (and fairies) that Sir James Matthew Barrie donated in 1912. What a delightful afternoon it was; there were families with children everywhere. The statue and the setting evoke any and all of the renditions of Barrie‘s story and play about the boy Peter Pan
Creating Peter Pan
After one of his plays fails in London 1903, Barrie takes his Newfoundland dog and goes to Kensington Gardens to write a new one. There he meets the Llewellyn Davies family, four young boys and their widowed mother Sylvia, (Kate Winslett.) All the boys like James except Peter (Freddie Highmore), who still misses his deceased father. Barrie starts to visit their home, and meets them in the park to play and act out stories. He presents Peter with a journal so that he can use his own imagination and write stories, too. He does, and presents a play about St. Ursula to James and Sylvia.
James is married and rumors begin to circulate that his interest in Mrs. Davies is inappropriate, as are his attentions to the boys. James seems genuinely surprised by these accusations and says that they are only friends. Mrs. Davies’ mother, Emma, played by Julie Christie, disapproves of James as does Mary, James’ wife. In fact, their marriage is already strained, and Mary starts seeing another man.
All the while, James is writing a new play about a boy who never wants to grow up and who lives in Neverland.
Themes of death, grief, loneliness and growing up
Finding Neverland is based on a year in the life of the Scots writer Sir J.M. Barrie from the demise of the play Little Mary in 1903 up until the time the play Peter Pan was first staged in 1904. The Davies family really existed and the characters in Peter Pan were certainly inspired by the boys and their mother. Barrie loved children and donated all the royalties for Peter Pan to a children’s hospital in . The film is greatly entertaining and does have some serious themes such as death, grief, marital problems, loneliness – and that growing up means to care for others besides oneself. It is well-written, directed and “staged.” If you love creativity, (especially if you are a writer who gets writer’s block), and have an imagination that believes in fairies, you will enjoy Finding Neverland very much. Just remember to bring a hankie.
Johnny Depp does it again
Finding Neverland is based on the play by Allan Knee and directed by Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball). Johnny Depp plays J. M. Barrie so credibly that you forget he was that eccentric pirate Captain Jack Sparrow only last year in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. There’s one thing about Johnny Depp that stands out as an actor: he is the person he portrays, unlike many actors who just play themselves in different movies. I had a film teacher once who said that the reason the fine actor Paul Muni who won an Oscar in 1935 for his role in The Life of Louis Pasteur, is almost forgotten today is because he disappeared into his roles so much that people didn’t recognize him from film to film. I think Depp does the same thing, but there’s no way you can forget him. Perhaps the celebrity machine is so well oiled today that the publicists won’t let us forget him anyway. Depp rightfully deserves all the acclaim. He really can act.
Keep an eye on Freddie Highmore as Peter, who will be seen next, also with Johnny Depp, in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the remake of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.) Highmore gives an outstanding and consistent performance in Finding Neverland, well beyond the expectations of such a young child actor.
I see visions of Oscar.
(Only read the following after you have seen the film!)
How fictional is FINDING NEVERLAND?
The film runs pretty close to the facts – even when Barrie tells Sylvia about the death of his brother and how their mother hid away in her bedroom for months, making a lasting impression on James. Thus, Barrie always had “mothering” issues (see his brief and moving biography called Margaret Oglivie; it can be found online).The film evokes this pathos and explains the haunting loneliness that surrounds Barrie.
It’s interesting to research Barrie‘s life as well as that of the Davies children after the events depicted in the film conclude. James did become the boys’ guardian after their mother died (there were really five boys, not four.) James actually met the Davies, however, when the father was still living (he died three years before the mother). He did not much approve of James’ friendship with the family either. I think the grandmother in the film/play may stand in for Mr. Davies in the interest of time. Two of the boys died while young men, and Peter, a publisher, unfortunately took his own life in 1960. Most accounts say it is because, even though he cared for the boys and sent them all to Eton (the school Princes William and Harry attended), had cut them out of his will. No one seems to know why. The boys always consistently denied all rumors ofinappropriate behavior on the part of Barrie. Barrie, who was born in Kirriemuir, Scotland in 1860, was knighted, became a university rector and was close friends with Sir Conan Doyle and other literati of his times. He died in 1937.