Don’t be fooled by the pirate drag Johnny Depp wears in the transporting Finding Neverland. There is no sign of campy Captain Jack in this low-key and lyrical take on Scottish author J.M. Barrie, the odd duck who created Peter Pan. Depp’s soulful intensity as Barrie — a performance steeped in gentle humor and inexpressible sorrow — is the polar opposite of his turn in Pirates of the Caribbean. Depp won his first Oscar nomination for swanning through that blockbuster; he deserves at least as much for playing Barrie with the grace notes that mark an actor at the top of his game.
Finding Neverland is glorious entertainment. It shimmers with the promise of enchantment that lost boy Peter Pan brought to the earthbound Darling children (Wendy, Michael and John) when he sprinkled them with fairy dust and flew them off to Neverland. But it’s the lost boy in Barrie, conveyed by Depp without sugarcoating, that counts.
Directed by Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball), this Edwardian period piece picks up in 1903, when Barrie’s play Little Mary flops in London. His producer (a solid Dustin Hoffman) isn’t worried. But Barrie is. At home, he takes little comfort in his childless marriage to Mary, played by the beautiful Radha Mitchell with a gathering frost. But there is sexual heat in Mary. The deft script by David Magee (from a play by Allan Knee) even hints at an affair. Still, Barrie isn’t responding to her fire.
Sexuality hovers on the edge of this movie, as if afraid to enter and spoil the family fun. Was Barrie impotent, asexual or a bit too interested in little boys? No truck is given to the pedophile rumors that might have turned this Neverland into the Michael Jackson version. The plot kicks in when Barrie meets young widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet, a radiant force of nature). Her vitality attracts him. But the magnet is her four sons: Michael (Luke Spill), George (Nick Roud), Jack (Joe Prospero) and Peter (Freddie Highmore). Soon Barrie is indulging in their games. The film sparks with comic life, and Peter Pan is born.
Then Sylvia develops a cough. You can guess the rest. But Forster’s film is magical, not mush. It helps to have Julie Christie around as Sylvia’s mother, a ramrod who doesn’t know what business Barrie has falling in love with her family. Too late; we’ve fallen too. When Barrie brings the cast of Peter Pan to do a private performance for the ailing Sylvia at her home, dry eyes will be at a premium. Barrie’s conversations with Sylvia’s son Peter — the solemn little boy who can’t accept his father’s death — are wonderfully touching thanks to the interplay between Depp and Highmore, a child actor of extraordinary gifts. “I’m not Peter Pan — he is,” says the boy as Depp’s face becomes a window into Barrie’s soul. It’s too early to speculate on how Depp, 41, will grow as an actor. Based on Finding Neverland, it’s not too early to call him a great one.