One problem with the otherwise excellent Finding Neverland is its title. Perhaps its Swiss director, Marc Forster, didn’t realize that many Americans would think the movie had something to do with Michael Jackson and so miss what is in fact a touching little biographical essay about the author of Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie, marvelously played by Johnny Depp, and his relationship with the Llewelyn-Davies family — in particular a boy named Peter (Freddy Highmore). But in a way it does have to do with Michael Jackson too. For it is important that Neverland mean Never. It is by definition a place removed from reality and the film-makers, including David Magee who adapted a play by Allan Knee, sometimes show signs of repeating Mr Jackson’s mistake in trying to make it really exist. Most disastrously, after setting up an enormously moving conclusion, they put into Mr Depp’s mouth the merely facile consolation to a child on the death of a beloved parent that the charms of Neverland are always there to escape to, that you can go there in "imagination" and "any time you want."
It’s an awful moment of bathos and the fact that it doesn’t spoil the movie is a tribute to the skill with which it has drawn its portrait of Barrie and the Llewelyn-Davies family, though several of the relevant facts about them have been changed. The movie only shows us four sons when in fact there were five, and their father is supposed to be dead when Barrie first meets them, though in reality he had known the family for some time before that melancholy event. But Barrie’s flirtation with scandal in remaining close to the pretty widow, Sylvia (Kate Winslet) and her sons and the destructive effect of the relationship upon his own marriage to Mary (Radha Mitchell) are more or less accurate. To its great credit, the film represents the scurrilous rumors about Barrie and Mrs Llewelyn-Davies and/or her sons as being completely false, as almost certainly they were.
Above all, the movie is deserving of praise for the restraint with which it shows us what in less sensitive hands would doubtless have been the entirely destructive and loathsome forces of Edwardian "respectability." These are a constant irritant to Barrie’s affection and compassion, but they never seem merely arbitrary or stupid. Respectable society is embodied in Sylvia’s mother, Emma du Maurier (Julie Christie), widow of the popular cartoonist and novelist, George du Maurier who, with his most famous work, Trilby, gave us the hat of the same name, the character of the evil genius, Svengali, and ultimately The Phantom of the Opera. In one scene the imperious Mrs du Maurier dismisses Barrie brusquely, warning him away from too great intimacy with her daughter. George, the oldest of her grandchildren who loves Barrie now consoles him: "She just doesn’t want to see mother hurt anymore."
Barrie marvels: "The boy’s gone," he tells him. "Some time in the last 30 seconds you have grown up."
His words reveal Barrie’s preternatural sensitivity to the passage of time, most famously represented in Peter Pan by the ticking clock in the all-devouring crocodile’s stomach. But they also remind us of how the rules of respectable society are there for a reason, to keep people from being hurt. Recognizing this is what it means to grow up. In other words, the conventions of what even then was beginning to be called "middle-class morality" — and what since then the movies have learned to treat as merely stultifying and destructive — are as necessary to the creation of Peter Pan as Barrie’s somewhat whimsical imagination or the stimulus it received from his relationship with the Llewelyn-Davies boys. This is because, as P.J. Hogan’s marvelous film version showed last year, the play is really about growing up and not, as it has been treated for at least the last half century, about not growing up.
And timely comes the lesson! For the reign of the childish interpretation of Peter Pan has coincided with a period during which we have grown used to men in their 40s and 50s who routinely appear in public in T-shirts and shorts, watch cartoons, play video games and listen to teenagers’ music. The grotesque man-boy Michael Jackson has become the master figure of the age — and partly by battening onto the Disney-fied, theme-park version of Peter Pan. For us, not growing up has become a kind of cultural ethos, a thing to be aspired to by the now aging children who grew up with it — or rather didn’t grow up with it — and perhaps even an entitlement. But Forster’s film, along with Hogan’s, should be treated as a powerful refutation of this childishness. Hogan showed how the attractions of not growing up naturally begin to pall first for Wendy, and how it is through her — as it has always been through women — that the lost boys have to learn to give up the edenic world of Neverland and do the things that boys have to do to be men. That’s why it is the land of heart’s delight: because it must be left, as all good things must be left.
The attempt to live on in Neverland produces only the sad and lonely figure of Peter Pan, forever shut out of the ordinary life of men and women, of work and the begetting of a new generation of children who will in their turn have to learn to give up the childish things they first learned to love. Not that Neverland does not remain a perpetual temptation, for adults as much as for children. In another tremendous scene as her marriage with Barrie is breaking up, Mary speaks of her girlish dreams of what marriage to him would be like: a paradise of similarly "brilliant people" and "a place where ideas floated in the air like leaves in autumn."
"There is no such place, Mary," says Barrie sadly.
"Yes there is," she replies: "Neverland."
She has to learn again the lesson of Wendy and the Lost Boys, that Neverland must be given up. It is the parallels between this sacrifice and the Llewelyn-Davies boys’ loss of their parents that the film still manages to suggest in spite of the merely sentimental guff about "imagination" at the end. Finding Neverland shows us Barrie’s world as it really is — a momentary escape from reality, rather than a substitute for it.
Good as is the serious point made by Finding Neverland, perhaps the best reason to see it, and the thing that completely overwhelms its faults is the remarkable talent of young Master Highmore, who gives the best movie performance by a child since Andrei Chalimon in Zdenek and Jan Sverák’s Kolya (1996). Though this Peter shares his name with the boy who won’t grow up, in real life he has the opposite problem. He has taken his father’s death much harder than any of his brothers and, not coincidentally, he resists most fiercely the playful friendship offered by Barrie as a means of escape from his grief. All those stories of pirates and Indians and fairies are "just a bit of silliness, really" to Peter who, as Barrie explains to his mother "is trying to grow up too fast. He thinks grown-ups don’t hurt as much as children."
When, finally, the boy is at last inveigled into participating in his brother’s games and constructs an elaborate theatrical production in the garden, his mother is taken ill as she watches and Peter, in a fury, destroys the stage and set. In a scene of almost unbearable poignancy, the child rounds on Barrie, telling him of how his mother had promised his father would take him fishing on the day before he died. "I won’t be lied to," says Peter through his angry tears. "I’m not blind."
"She didn’t lie," says Barrie softly. "It was her hope."
Peter has not yet learned to hope. Like all very young children he either believes completely or rejects completely. Hope is an accomplishment of maturity and is expressed here in the unrealizable but inextinguishable hope of Neverland — which is what, even now, we are always being surprised by finding.