As the film opens, Barrie (Johnny Depp) suffers the failure of a new play. His American backer (Dustin Hoffman) is in despair. Barrie finds that all he has in common with his wife (Radha Mitchell) is almost total indifference to their marriage. Emotionally and artistically, he's adrift.
Salvation appears when he stumbles across a troop of little boys playing in the park, children of the recently widowed Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet). The lonely widow positively encourages Barrie as he diligently works himself into the center of her sons' emotional lives, captivating them with endless games of cowboys and Indians. Barrie's marriage predictably suffers, but it's a small price to pay for inspiration. The boys become models for the characters that would make him famous.
This story of artistic reawakening in belle époque London inevitably begs comparison to Mike Leigh's "Topsy-Turvy" (1999), the brilliant evocation of Gilbert and Sullivan's tribulations preceding the premiere of "The Mikado." That film plunges into the unnerving contradictions of the era's heavily starched rectitude, but "Finding Neverland" is positively Victorian in its squeamishness. For one thing, when the real Barrie insinuated himself into the Llewelyn Davies household, Mr. Llewelyn Davies was still alive. Clearly he has been done away with so that Barrie's chaste affection for the lovely young mom will seem all the more noble and unambiguous, which is to say, less dramatic.
The profound lack of chemistry between Depp and Winslet is enough to keep Barrie from appearing in the light of an adulterer, but the film's dogged evasion of complexity robs the story of much of its drama. There's only one scene that brings forth the potentially creepy side of Barrie's fondness for boys, and its function is basically to scold any viewer who might harbor sinister suspicions.
The air of mawkish high-mindedness hobbles the performances as well. The script provides few clues about Barrie's motivation, so Depp can do little but moon about with the air of someone pure of heart but sadly misunderstood. Even when he openly mocks his wife in front of the boys a truly unappetizing spectacle the movie asks us to see him as harmless exuberance incarnate.
Winslet does a fine job of capturing the period's distinctive mix of energy and restraint, but her characterization is sacrificed on the altar of respectability and simplicity. When she shows signs of tuberculosis, she is swiftly absorbed into the company of languishing heroines, and her individuality melts away. Julie Christie does manage a star turn as Winslet's enjoyably viperish mother, who turns out to be the model for Captain Hook.
The only arresting performance is turned in by child actor Freddie Highmore in the role of Peter Llewelyn Davies, after whom Barrie named the boy who wouldn't grow up. Playing Peter as a brooding, wounded, and occasionally fiery artist in the making, Highmore seems like a refugee from another, better film. Infuriated that he's being lied to about his mother's illness, he rages, "I won't be made a fool!" Such is his conviction that he carries off the high-toned diction with the ardor of a pint-sized Heathcliff.
D.H. Lawrence wrote that Barrie had "a fatal touch for those he loves. They die." The real Peter killed himself in 1960. One of Peter's brothers fell in World War I. Another drowned at Oxford, perhaps on purpose. There may be a great story to tell about Barrie and the legacy of his relationship with the Llewelyn Davieses, but "Finding Neverland" is too worried about offending us to tell it. ** S