To raise fact-checking quibbles with a film that declares itself “inspired by true events” may seem overly pedantic, but one has to wonder what the late Nico Llewelyn Davies, youngest of the five brothers who inspired J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, would make of Finding Neverland. In re-enacting the immaculate conception of the boy who wouldn’t grow up, the movie wipes Nico from the family portrait like a vanished commissar. It also hastens the demise of his father, Arthur—dead before the film’s events commence—and of Nico’s mother, Sylvia (Kate Winslet), soon befallen by what begins as a “silly chest cold.”
In truth, Barrie (Johnny Depp, trying on a meandering Scottish accent) had embedded himself with an intact and healthy family when he wrote Peter Pan. Finding Neverland prefers to envision Barrie’s immortal play, and its genesis, as a fantastic faerie fortress built against the sneering incursions of Death—in the press notes, director Marc Forster muses about “the deep human need for illusions, dreams and belief that inspire us even in the face of tragedy.” Of course, Forster and screenwriter David Magee (adapting Allan Knee’s play The Man Who Was Peter Pan) could have drawn their dose of misfortune simply by tinkering a bit with the dates of Arthur’s illness and passing, but a horrible and protracted death from cancer of the jaw would probably make for less decorous viewing than Winslet’s discreet coughing. Biopics have a deep human need for illusions, too.
Finding Neverland inhabits a green, empty England in endless Edwardian summer, where celestial la-la choruses ring through the air. Recovering from the flop of his most recent play, Barrie escapes his mausoleum-like house and his sullen, social-climbing wife (Radha Mitchell) for long walks in Kensington Gardens, where he first encounters the marvelous Llewelyn Davies lads in their matching rust-colored tam-o’-shanters. The overgrown boy and his recently bereaved little friends play rousing games of pirates (indeed, long-lashed Depp seems to have developed a penchant for kohl since portraying Captain Jack Sparrow) and cowboys-and-Indians, gifting Barrie with iconic lightbulb flashes: Roughhousing at bedtime, the kids suddenly spring from their beds and fly out the window, or tough-broad Grandma (Julie Christie) sprouts a hook where her hand used to be.
A surfeit of loaded themes—beatifying illness, bereft children, escapist fantasy, the enshrining of boyhood—hoists all manner of red flags, especially in the hands of Forster, who directed the morbid exploit-o-rama Monster’s Ball (2001). Yet Finding Neverland practices a tasteful restraint, embodied by Depp’s unusually subdued performance. Winslet strides with businesslike purpose through the thankless role of the sainted mum, but it’s the remarkable young actor Freddie Highmore who kicks some raw integrity into the film as Peter Llewelyn Davies, the brother most conspicuously damaged by his dad’s death and the most skeptical of middle-aged Barrie’s perpetual-playdate lifestyle. (Highmore is perfectly cast, opposite Depp again, as the title character of the upcoming Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.) Depp and Highmore’s final scene together strikes a muted blow of desolation—bottomless but just bearable—that Forster rather bravely lets stand as the last word on all the fanciful solace that Barrieland had to offer.