Clap If You Believe in Fairies: Johnny Depp in Finding Neverland

Marc Forster’s Finding Neverland, from a screenplay by David Magee, based on the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan, arrives almost accidentally in New York on the 100th anniversary of the London stage spectacle of Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, by James M. Barrie (1860-1937). Barrie lived through the Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian eras and was later knighted, largely for naming and enshrining a permanent childhood complex in the annals of psychoanalysis and world literature.

The release date of Mr. Forster’s Finding Neverland was reportedly delayed because it was deemed too soon after P.J. Hogan’s 2003 live-action Peter Pan, made 50 years after Disney’s popular 1953 cartoon rendition of the play (and almost 80 years after Betty Bronson scored a fondly remembered triumph as a winsome Peter Pan in Herbert Brenon’s 1924 silent film version, a mere 20 years after the play’s 1904 premiere on the London stage). In the interim, we’ve had Mary Martin and many other boyish females flying about in theatrical venues across the world.

I must confess that, as far back as I can remember, I thought the very idea of Peter Pan a bit creepy-and this was long before Michael Jackson came along to poison the well of retrogressive whimsy. Up until now, I’ve deliberately remained so ignorant of the entire subject that I’m still not sure whether Peter Pan asks the audience to clap if they believe in fairies to save Tinkerbell or Wendy Darling.

Still, I was somewhat impressed when Alfred Hitchcock told me that one of the high points of dramatic art in the Western world was the moment when Peter Pan asked the audience to clap. It seems that Hitch had always wanted to film Barrie’s Mary Rose, with its ghostly theme, but the studios would never back him. I can only speculate that Vertigo (1958) was the next closest thing to expressing and exorcising his deepest feelings about mortality and denial.

On its own terms, Finding Neverland succeeds as a self-contained emotional experience because of its departures from biographical accuracy, and in spite of them. The documented facts would have been much messier to adapt to the screen. For example, the five real-life Llewelyn Davies boys would’ve been more unwieldy to shoot than the four depicted in the film. Likewise, including the boy’s father, Arthur Llewelyn Davies, would have been an obstacle in portraying Barrie’s casual access to the boys for playtime frolics in the park-research material for the play that would later make him a national treasure. Hence, in the film, the boys’ father is recently deceased, so that they-in particular Peter, the youngest-would still be grieving for him when Barrie appears on the scene as a strange sort of surrogate father and playmate (a role that the real-life Barrie legally assumed after their mother died).

Yet in the film, the mother also dies-much earlier than she did in real life-with Barrie as a climactic consoler. As the audience brushes away their tears, one may feel manipulated (or not), but Mr. Depp’s unyielding restraint in this and all other potentially sticky situations places him in a virtual three-way tie in my winter Oscar picks, along with Jamie Foxx ( Ray) and Paul Giamatti ( Sideways). Mr. Depp’s portrayal of Barrie is marvelously discreet, just subtle enough to let the well-placed fantasy sequences run rampant without undermining the central narrative. Mr. Depp’s Barrie evolves within a behavioral vacuum that encourages and inspires all the uninhibited tumult of childhood to fill it.

The film begins with the somewhat mystifying mise-en-scène of opening night at the theater, with hubbub on both sides of the curtain. We witness what is eventually a momentary setback in Barrie’s playwriting career, setting the stage, as it were, for his luminous success with Peter Pan. We’re introduced to Barrie as a shy, insecure but still decisive figure who aims to please both theater patrons and critics, and who becomes quietly distraught when his play is rebuffed by both. We’re introduced to his prophetically exasperated wife, Mary Ansell Barrie (Radha Mitchell), and to his comically stoic producer, Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman), who views the looming financial disaster of the evening with a calming sang-froid. The delicacy of these sequences provides early assurances of a light touch in Mr. Forster’s directorial approach.

The separate bedrooms in the Barrie household evoke not only a loveless marriage, but also an upper-class existence with the full complement of servants. Not that Barrie’s subsequent forays in the park with the Llewelyn Davies brood mark him as a predator of the less advantaged. Indeed, when Barrie is introduced to the beautiful mother of the boys, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet), and their beautiful but formidably disapproving grandmother, Mrs. Emma du Maurier (Julie Christie), the widow of the celebrated illustrator and novelist George du Maurier, it’s Barrie’s social-climbing wife who insists that he invite the whole family to dinner. The French-born du Maurier, the creator of such eccentric creatures as Trilby and Svengali in his second novel, Trilby (perhaps best known these days as the inspiration for Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera), is not the only cultural name dropped in the course of the film. Ian Hart plays a friendly gossip who warns Barrie about his “unseemly” association with four boys and their comely widowed mother, a woman not his wife. Not until the closing credits do we discover him to be Arthur Conan Doyle.

So the dinner is held, and ruined in Mary Barrie’s eyes when her husband persists in playing the clown for the boys’ amusement. Mr. Depp thus expresses through Barrie a quiet fanaticism at work, a stubborn belief in the spiritual supremacy of childhood in human existence. Barrie’s own spiritual desolation is traced back to the death of his older brother, a loss that left his mother too inconsolable to pay attention to her younger son. In desperation, Barrie dressed up in his brother’s clothes, and was rewarded with the first intent glances of his mother toward him.

One might say that the wounded boy, James Barrie, never really grew up-and thus, in literary terms, the deep appeal for him of boys who refused to grow up. Yet this would constitute a grotesque oversimplification. It is not simply growing up that’s at issue here, but rather facing the fearsome issues of life and death at an early age. Barrie lived at a time when childhood deaths were more common than they are today. The crocodile with the clock ticking in his belly chews us all, as one of Barrie’s elderly theatergoing admirers tells the pensive author. Barrie responds with a wondrously startled expression at the old lady’s good-natured perspicacity, even after that same crocodile has swallowed her own husband.

The integration of childhood and adulthood has never been more felicitously achieved than it has here, with the perfect casting of Mr. Depp, Ms. Winslet, Ms. Christie, Ms. Mitchell and Mr. Hoffman on the grown-up side, in tandem with the Llewelyn Davies brothers: Jack (Joe Prospero), George (Nick Roud), Michael (Luke Spill) and the heartbreaking youngest, Peter (Freddie Highmore). It’s sobering to note that in real life, two of the Davies boys died as young adults, and that Peter himself-who never came to terms with the unwanted celebrity he received as the model for Peter Pan-threw himself under a train at the age of 63. Perhaps to cheat the crocodile of time?

Still, I’m sure that if Hitchcock were alive today, he’d lead the clapping when asked if he believed in fairies by that convincingly eloquent Scottish actress, Kelly MacDonald, as the most evocative Peter Pan for the ages. As a work of art, Finding Neverland establishes its limits and then transcends them to provide a glorious entertainment for this holiday season.

Bravo, Bening

István Szabó’s Being Julia, from a screenplay by Ronald Harwood, based on the novel Theatre by W. Somerset Maugham, continues the lend-lease policy of American and British actors exchanging nationalities. Hence Jude Law in the Old South of Cold Mountain and Liam Neeson in the Kinsey Institute of Indiana in one direction, and Renée Zellweger’s Bridget Jones and Annette Bening as British stage actress Julia Lambert in the other.

Ms. Bening has been away for so long that one is inclined to plug Being Julia hard, if only to keep her working in movies more often. The image of Ms. Bening materializing from Michael Douglas’ bathroom in The American President (1995) in seemingly nothing but a man’s shirt and a blazingly affirmative smile is one of the most erotic moments in the history of the American cinema, but that was almost a decade ago.

The movie here is reasonably faithful to the original Maugham story, which I read about a million years ago, and the supporting cast is mostly first-rate, particularly Jeremy Irons as Julia’s producer/husband, Michael Gosselyn; Bruce Greenwood as Lord Charles, her loyal gay admirer; Juliet Stevenson as Evie, her faithful dresser; and Michael Gambon as her late, ghostly first drama teacher, Jimmy Langton.

Where the casting slips up considerably is with her young lover, Tom Fennel, played by an excessively callow and transparently insincere Shaun Evans, and her younger rival both onstage and in the bedroom, Avice Crichton, played by Lucy Punch as a grotesque caricature of a temptress. Indeed, as I watched Ms. Punch smirking with self-adoration at every opportunity, I leaned over to my companion at the screening and whispered, “This girl makes me appreciative of Anne Baxter in All About Eve.” As Eve Harrington, Baxter was all that Bette Davis’ Margo Channing could handle-and then some. The same goes for Cameron Diaz and Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding, a more or less even match. But here, Julia has it much too easy getting her own back against a completely charmless rival. But as I listened to the joyously womanly laughter in the Paris Theatre, I realized that most female viewers of a certain age so completely identified with the seemingly fading Julia that they didn’t want anything remotely resembling a close contest between her and that talentless bitch. I don’t blame Ms. Punch entirely: She was obviously told not to do anything subtle or interesting vis-à-vis Ms. Bening.

My second objection to the film has to do with the idiocy of the lines presumably spoken on a London stage in 1938. Much of Ms. Bening’s supposed upstaging of Ms. Punch on opening night has to do with the way the two actresses play a scene as one of the characters keeps sneezing when trying to say something important. The theater audience of 1938 is supposed to find this simply hilarious; I didn’t, although I enjoyed watching Ms. Bening in close to top form, and I think you will, too.

Do You Remember Me?

Charles Shyer’s Alfie, from the screenplay by Elaine Pope and Ms. Shyer, based on the stage play (and later screenplay) by Bill Naughton, has been unflatteringly compared to the original Alfie (1966), with Michael Caine in the womanizing role taken on in the remake by Jude Law. As far as I’m concerned, denouncing remakes for not living up to the original is like shooting fish in a barrel: So what else is new? If a remake slavishly follows the original, it lacks imagination; if it takes great liberties, what was the point in doing it in the first place?

The two versions of Alfie are very different. One takes place in swinging-60′s London, the other in post-millennial Manhattan. Mr. Caine is a Cockney playboy, and his accent carries with it a certain class pathos; Mr. Law is a footloose Brit on the prowl in post– Sex and the City Manhattan, where the local chicks reportedly drool over men with British accents. It seemed to me, as a Manhattanite, that the film’s midtown streets were overloaded with sexually ferocious babes-hardly members of the working and walking population I encounter in my daily travels. Yet there seemed to be more targets for the first Alfie than for the second. In London, Mr. Caine’s Alfie could choose from among Shelley Winters, Millicent Martin, Julia Forster, Jane Asher, Shirley Anne Field, Vivien Merchant and Eleanor Bron. In Manhattan, Mr. Law’s Alfie has his pick of Susan Sarandon, Jane Krakowski, Marisa Tomei, Sienna Miller, Nia Long and a comically landladyish Renee Taylor. Otherwise, the original Alfie was as much overrated as the remake is underrated. Split the difference.