Finding Neverland

So one of the movies we saw over the holiday before I got sick was Finding Neverland. On one hand, it's got all the ingredients that apparently are pulling in the crowds: it's got a family theme; it gives one version of the backstory to Peter Pan; it has cute little kids and a dog in it; Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, and Julie Christie for star power; and it has an amazing ability to turn the entire theatre audience into weeping puddles by the end. I kid you not -- I'll tear up at all sorts of movies, so I'm no litmus test. But the big guy who sat behind me? the senior citizens at the end of the row? the teenaged girls? Everyone. My gf and I actually stood outside and watched people coming out. Nary a dry eye to be seen.

On the other hand, there's a lot of potentially disturbing stuff here too. After all, it's about a grown man (J.M. Barrie) who likes to spend his afternoons in the park playing imaginary games with someone else's children. The first 20 minutes or so are really uncomfortable to watch. Depp gives an amazing performance that teeters exactly on the boundary between playfulness and flirtation -- with his wife, with Sylvia Llewellyn Davies (the mother of the boys), and with the boys, especially the one called Peter. Now, because it's a big-budget movie released during the holidays, we all know it can't possibly be about a pedophile, right? So one of Barrie's friends takes him aside and says, basically, "you can't keep doing this, people are talking about you." And Barrie says "You mean with Mrs Davies?" and his friend says "Yes. But also with the boys." Barrie denounces all such rumors, and we the audience are summarily dismissed too, asked to stay and enjoy the film only if we can agree not to worry about such questions.

To the extent that you can do that, then, you get drawn into the story of Barrie's life as this film tells it. Wounded by his own childhood and the death of his brother at young age, he's an adult who longs for the innocence of childhood. He both recognizes and projects his own issues in/onto the boys, who have lost their father. As a playwright, he's struggling against blockage and failure. The imaginary games he plays with the boys provide him with material that becomes the successful stage play of Peter Pan. Life is fodder for art, according to this film; and the imagination can transform life into something better, at least for a little while.

Anthony Lane's review in the New Yorker points out some of the many ways in which this film does not actually represent Barrie's life. It too is an imaginative construction, which I think is only implicitly acknowledged in that early conversation between Barrie and his friend. What 21st century audiences expect to find in Peter Pan is something a little more sugary than what is actually in Barrie's text -- most people today think of Disney before anything else. Why did the story of Peter Pan resonate with its Edwardian audiences? Because death, the donning of adult responsibilities, the loss of childhood, were familiar obstacles for all adults. Why do today's viewers weep at the end of this movie? For exactly the opposite reason: we don't have an intimate familiarity with loss. We are stunned by the multiple losses experienced by the children in this film. We live in a world in which people live longer, in which we can buy enough entertainment stuff to prolong our childhoods forever, in which the transition from childhood to adulthood is marked by sex, not loss/death. For us, we can't not see sex hovering around the edges of this story, even though the film tries to banish it from our sight. What really happened? What did Barrie's wife think? What did the first viewers of Peter Pan think it was really about? There's no way to know. This film gives us maybe a partial glimpse. But it also tells us a lot about our own time.