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Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2005
Issues and closure for Peter Pan
There was a hilarious essay in Granta a while back by author Andrew O'Hagan on why he terminated his brief career as a newspaper film critic. The title pretty much says it all: "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Hate Miramax." One particular object of Mr. O'Hagan's wrath was the Johnny Depp film "Chocolat." Like many a Miramax product -- "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" also springs to mind -- it traded on a phony, picture-postcard vision of Europe, one strangely peopled by American stars and heavily accented "peasant-stock" extras. The film managed to be both ostentatiously smug in its literary pedigree and utterly maudlin at the same time.
It's a good thing O'Hagan quit, because Miramax's new Johnny Depp vehicle, "Finding Neverland," might have driven him over the edge. Set in the cricket and crumpet set of Edwardian London in 1903, "Neverland" tells a bowdlerized (read: "based on a true story") version of playwright J.M. Barrie and the events in his life that influenced his writing of the children's classic "Peter Pan."
Not that "Neverland" is a bad film. Far from it. As Barrie, Depp gets to do the innocent-trapped-in-an-adult's-body thing which he does so well, while Kate Winslet, as his friend/lover Sylvia Llewellyn Davies, is as solid as ever; together they work toward a tragic ending so weepy it cries out for a Bollywood re-make.
The acting, as always in a Miramax film, is impeccable. So is the scenery, the sumptuous camerawork, the tasteful score, the perfectly manicured "poetic" moment. Everything is finely scrubbed and just so. What's lacking is a sense of urgency, of rawness, of something that can tear through the polished perfection of a three-act "story arc." Disease hurts. Extramarital affairs hurt. The death of a parent, the failure of a career, the approbation of society all hurt, but in Miramax-land they're just little twinges in the Prozac haze, "issues" to be resolved with some warm and fuzzy "closure."
Take the relationship at the center of the film, that between Barrie, unhappily married and childless (and, it's implied, sexless), and Llewellyn Davies, a widow of declining means, with four children. After meeting the Davies family while on a walk in the park, Barrie starts to become a surrogate father to the boys, endlessly playing games with them, before finally becoming romantically involved with their mother.
What the film leaves out is that Mr. Llewellyn Davies was still very much alive. After a period of tension, the men somehow ended up quite close, with Barrie at Davies' side when he died. Now that's messy. That's real. How much more complicated, more imperfect, more human that story would have been. But rather than have us engage with complexity, the rough edges have been carefully polished off.
So be it. Taken as such, the film delivers, as much as is possible in this age of Michael Jackson. Admittedly, that's not the fault of the film, but it's hard to banish thoughts of that other Neverland in the headlines when watching a grown man play Cowboys and Indians with fey little boys; these are cynical times. The film does nod to the fact that there were murmurs about Barrie in his day, too.
Not that any of them were necessarily true: Director Marc Forster and screenwriter David Magee set out to portray Barrie as an almost Gilliam-esque character, a naive believer in the power of dreams and imagination to trump reality, a man for whom the Tinkerbell "clap your hands if you believe in fairies" speech represented a philosophy of life. Where it gets interesting is in the "why"; the film suggests that the whole "Peter Pan" fantasy -- with ever youthful Peter surviving the adult Hook who is pursued by the fatal tick-tock of time in a predator's belly -- was a reaction to childhood trauma (in this case the death of Barrie's brother James at age 8). Neverland was the imaginary place where Barrie would keep his brother in his memory, eternally young, neverchanging. It's a sad footnote indeed to the feel-good children's fable, and the film does a good job at showing how childhood innocence ends with knowledge of death.
It's the view of most modern cinema that great art is inextricably intertwined with personal torment (see "De-lovely" or the forthcoming "Ray" for recent examples), and "Finding Neverland" is no exception. And yet, while it's interesting to see what may have influenced Barrie's work, trauma alone doesn't explain it. Barrie himself would be rather depressed to see such a devaluing of the imagination in a relentlessly Freudian view. Which is more fascinating: the meandering, nebulous, fantastic world of dream, or the mundane, simplistic idea that it's all explained by, say, the fact that you weren't breast-fed?
Andrew O'Hagan notwithstanding, one shouldn't be too hard on "Neverland" or the Miramax approach in general; at least they're trying to tell stories with a certain emotional depth, with characters made of flesh and blood, as opposed to most recent output from Sony, Fox or Warner. But when a director indulges easy sentimentality the way Forster does here, criticism is due. Winslet is given one of cinema's oldest cliches, the creeping cough in the first act which everyone knows will be a death sentence by the final reel. CGI enactments of Barrie's imaginary play with the boys are a bit too precious, while the opening night performance of "Peter Pan" sees a group of little round-cheeked orphan urchins planted in the audience.
"Neverland" spends a lot of wind on insisting that Barrie put the play back into plays, but it's the viewer who may leave the theater thinking that he's been played.