One of the most grotesque, monstrously sentimental movies of recent memory, besides Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood, 2004), is Monster’s Ball (2001), about a prison guard who falls in love with the widow of an executed man. The guard is a white racist; the woman, like her deceased husband and their young son, is African-American. The director is Marc Forster, who was born to German parents and grew up in Switzerland. Forster moved to the United States in the 1990s. He is in his mid-thirties.
A few years back, he was represented on screen by Finding Neverland, a fanciful biography of J. M. Barrie, the Scottish author, at the time of his most famous play, Peter Pan. The script, by David Magee, is based on a small portion of another play, The Man Who Was Peter Pan, by Allan Knee. It is not a serious, unified work but, rather, an alternately light and dark sentimental entertainment.
One theme it declines to pursue is the heady, bewitching power of children’s innocence, although it was partially in the grip of this that Barrie created Peter Pan, the boy who won’t grow up and leads other children in miraculous flight and assorted adventures in Neverland, a place of the imagination. Despite its prodigious sympathy for the very young, Forster’s film provides little, if any, insight into the awesome, indefatigably beautiful realm of childhood. On the other hand, certain facts in its children’s lives darken this realm and make it tenuous. The children in question belong to a widow, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, whom, and whose four boys, Barrie befriends, more or less taking a holiday from his perplexed wife, with whom (in actuality) Barrie may never have had sexual relations (or with anyone else, either). Having lost their father, the boys are also poised to lose their mother, who is dying of lung cancer. (Their father died of cancer of the jaw three years earlier.) Particularly struck by the family predicament is little Peter, to whom Barrie, then 43, is especially drawn. Tragedy has undone Peter’s openness and trust, and in part Barrie writes his play to restore a measure of joyful wonder to the boy’s psyche. He is also driven by a powerful memory of his own: the death in childhood of his older brother, David—a death that shattered his mother, whose chief comforter Barrie then became. David’s death meant that David would never grow old, and Barrie’s perpetual boy, Peter Pan, is meant to memorialize the fact.
This is a lot of history for Forster’s film to attempt to pull together, and some theme, some idea, certainly would have helped. But the film is more doodle than sketch. This is not to say, however, that the film is without purpose. Finding Neverland exists to correlate its materials, to bring to bear the burden of the past in order to bring the “present” of its Edwardian London to emotional fruition. The film works like gangbusters, or at least did so in my case. I cried, well, like a little boy. Most especially, Sylvia’s dying and death, not to mention a freshly shattered Peter that is the result, are irresistible.
But every now and then one has to scratch one’s head. Is it really the case that Jim Barrie’s mother paid him no notice until brother David died? Was this snub really, as the film suggests, the origin of Barrie’s stunted emotional growth and sexual peculiarities?
Whatever. This film represents a bold advance over Monster’s Ball. Also, Roberto Schaefer’s color cinematography basks everything in a warm and appealing glow. Moreover, three of the performances are brilliant: beauteous Kate Winslet as Sylvia, beauteous Julie Christie as Sylvia’s fiercely protective, somewhat imperious mother, and Freddie Highmore as Peter, the pint-sized skeptic. And Johnny Depp as Barrie? He is not in the same league as the others, with his limited range and lightweight voice. Especially grating is his spurious accent, which Depp lifted from the Ryan Phillippe character in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2000). But there, you will recall, the fake accent belongs not to Phillippe’s performance but to the actor that Phillippe is playing, and other characters duly note how fake the accent is. Depp, out of his depth, must have missed the point.