Wednesday, April 05, 2006

"Finding Neverland": A Movie Review


"All children, except one, grow up."
J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan (London: 1911), p. 1.

About a week before Christmas, last year, I was overdosing on "good will towards all" and needed a little quiet time, so I opted for a traditional solution and went to a movie on a Tuesday night.
The theater was nearly empty, which is nice because there were relatively few distractions from screaming children or adults, or screaming cell phones for that matter.
I was sorry to see that a fine film, with a warm holiday message (in the best Hollywood tradition), received such scant attention from the public as opposed to critics. The theater should have been packed, given the mediocre competition. It is difficult to get people to shell out their $10.50 for a ticket to a movie that does not feature "gee whiz" special effects and the latest photographic tricks.
Finding Neverland is a touching and well-acted "feel-good" movie, with its heart on its sleeve, providing some excellent performances -- much appreciated by the critics -- but which did not draw a large audience when it first appeared. Kate Winslett plays a widow, the mother of a brood of boys. She befriends young writer J.M. Barrie, played by Johnny Depp with boyish charm and insouciance, who is bouncing back from a West End flop. Dustin Hoffman is a welcome surprise in a supporting role as a producer and friend of the writer.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I have been told that I "look like" Johnny Depp. This is a compliment to me, which I might even believe -- if the actor were only older, gray-haired, wore glasses and purchased his clothing in thrift stores and were not so good looking. As it is, I interpret the remark as a bit of kindness from a friend, which has made me a fan of the actor. If only I'd get to meet Kate Winslet, I'd be all set. (Yes, I'll be content to settle for her movies.)

Ms. Winslet is excellent, as always, beautiful and affecting, able to melt your heart with a single penetrating look at the camera. If there is a single quality that characterizes a great film actor, I think, it must be the ability to convey dozens of distinct emotions with a single glance at the camera. Ms. Winslet possesses this gift in abundance, along with a natural and powerful beauty, effortless grace and a lovely voice. One way or another, Kate was going to have a good time in life, since she was bound to achieve success at whatever she chose to do. Lucky for us that she became an actress or actor (let us be gender-neutral). I wonder whether -- during her starving actor days -- she recorded some readings from Shakespeare or Jane Austen (besides the recording of Sense and Sensibility)?

Ms. Winslet has the ability to portray both vulnerability and strength at the same time. This is a useful and rare gift that is perfect for this role. As the boy's mother -- who is drawn to the child-like sweetness and imaginative fantasy of the Depp character -- she is strong and brave in facing her illness and dismal prospects, yet still vulnerable, making it clear that love (even as a chimerical and fleeting possibility) is always better than its absence. The film also suggests that retaining a bit of childhood innocence and hope is not such a bad thing in a world that provides each of us with a share of tragedy and loss. ("'The Reader': A Movie Review" and "'Revolutionary Road': A Movie Review.")

Mr. Depp depicts Barrie as wounded and healed by imagination and creativity, with a love for children and an innocent desire to help them. J.M. Barrie donated the earnings from his copyright for "Peter Pan" to an orphan children's hospital in London, which was permitted to continue to earn royalties from the copyright beyond the time period allowed by law, thanks to a special law passed by Parliament. The film hints at Barrie's cold and unsatisfactory marriage to a good woman, who does not understand the writer's flights of fantasy or his need for them and cannot share in them. Tragedy and death can become haunting presences in childhood, from which the best escapes may well be art and the enchanted country of the imagination, the "playing" of genius. ("A Review of the television series, 'Alice.'")

Imagination is the only way to "Neverland," as Barrie's writings make clear. All it takes is belief. Choosing to believe the best is half the battle in any long term challenge, especially when it comes to loving someone and facing a lifetime of obstacles. It is certainly my attitude to familial relationships. The ability to reach Neverland, the land of dreams, allows us to overcome even distance or death. For those we love -- however absent they may be from our "real" lives -- always live in our imaginations. Think of this ability as a capacity for "transcendence." ("A Night at the Opera.")

The villain of the piece, to the extent that there is one, is played by Julie Christie, who "enacts" the Winslet character's domineering and possessive mother. The film only hints at this, but there are people -- sometimes surprisingly close relatives -- who resent the happiness and love available to others, often unconsciously, maybe even convincing themselves that they are acting for all the best reasons in seeking to destroy that most precious and rare phenomenon in life, genuine love.
The simple, disinterested and intense mutual affection and loyalty between any two human beings is always the greatest healing force in life. If there is such a thing as a "greatest good," then it must be love. To destroy love or deprive others of it, is one of life's few unforgivable evils. Finally, the charm and humor provided by the children, the beautiful photography and fine acting in small parts -- all add to the pleasures of this movie, which I plan to get on DVD, as an antidote to depression. See it, you'll like it.

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