I don't know for sure just how James M. Barrie came to write his play "Peter Pan" (and yes it was a play before - long before - it was a musical and a film). But "Finding Neverland" gives us as good a story as any, in this version of the year leading up to its first London production. Directed by the American Marc Forster ("Monster's Ball") from a script by David Magee, who in turn adapted Allan Knee's play, the film stars Johnny Depp as Barrie and Kate Winslet as the widowed mother of four boys who become Barrie's inspiration.
It is London in 1904; Barrie and his wife Mary (Radha Mitchell) are locked in a dry and distant marriage; he himself, as a playwright, is in a dry spell. His latest play has just opened to bad reviews and his producer (Dustin Hoffman) is after him for a new one. Every day he walks in Kensington Gardens, and now he spots a young woman, the widow Sylvia Llewellen Davies (Winslet) and her four boys. Childless himself, he finds solace and fun with this new family, playing with the boys, inventing games, enjoying the visits. Issues of sexual attraction - whether with Sylvia or, God forbid, the boys - are skirted, though Sylvia's mother (Julie Christie) is quite publicly aware of them, and of what she feels is Barrie's unhealthy, in fact scandalous attachment to the family.
Depp is amazing; is there anything this actor cannot do? He has put on a Barrie-like Scots accent without any self-consciousness - that is, it never gets in the way of his lines or actions or character. He is a Barrie whom I think even Barrie would recognize and approve. And Winslet is back to her old skillful work ("Sense and Sensibility," "Titanic"), being rather than acting. She turns what could easily have been a bathetic cliché into a recognizable human being.
"Finding Neverland" follows the arc of the year, with by-the-numbers foreshadowing of events to come, but in spite of the mechanical structure of the film, the double climax - a triumph and a simultaneous tragedy - still has the power to move and excite us. I first saw "Finding Neverland" at a prestigious international film festival and wondered for the first half-hour just why it was programmed there. But when the film caught me up in its tendrils I was only too happy to let go. If you must know, I cried. As we all should when Tinkerbell is restored to life. It's what we owe to the child within us.