'Finding Neverland' features near-perfect performances and writing

The story of Peter Pan has inspired lavish Broadway productions, films both good and bad (last year's Peter Pan good, Hook bad!) and even a relatively enjoyable ride at Disneyland. Now, the story becomes the basis of a remarkable movie that depicts its origin as a grand gift to a widow and her four sons as a means of dealing with death.

In Finding Neverland, playwright J.M. Barrie's glorious intentions and inspirations for his most famous work might be embellished, but only a true ogre would allow this to be bothersome. The relationship at this film's center, Barrie's paternal friendship with four boys after the loss of their father, is beautifully depicted. And while many a film would've chosen to allow Barrie and the children's mother, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet), to embark on a torrid affair, director Marc Forster (Monster's Ball) and screenwriter David Magee wisely keep the relationship platonic. Seeing Winslet naked again would've distracted from an important story.

The film commences as a Barrie play opens and flops in London, leaving the playwright disillusioned and searching. While visiting a park soon afterward, he happens upon a young boy being held captive by his older brother underneath a park bench, and subsequently finds himself spending much of his free time with Sylvia Davies and her four sons. This is much to the displeasure of his wife (Radha Mitchell), who loves his plays but detests being neglected. The film then chronicles Barrie's mentoring of the boys, often drifting into wonderful fantasy as Barrie finds himself envisioning pieces of his most famous work.

As Barrie, Depp is the polar opposite of the immensely enjoyable camp he put forth as Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean. This time out, his performance is one of subtlety and sweetness. Depp renders Barrie both virtuous and heroic while barely bringing his voice (effectively disguised with a Scottish accent) above conversational tones. As Davies, Winslet is most charming, and her work here is a nice complement to her star turn in this year's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

With these two stellar performances acknowledged, it must be said that the true highlight of this film is the work of Freddie Highmore as Peter Davies, whom the film depicts as Barrie's inspiration for the boy who never grows up. Highmore's grasp of his role is nothing less than astonishing. His work is not obvious or prototypical; his rapport with Depp so good that the two will team again in Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

In a supporting role, Dustin Hoffman acquits himself from past Pan atrocities (namely, his scenery-chomping Captain Hook in Steven Spielberg's worst film to date), and delivers a funny, understated performance as Charles Frohman, the producer who continues to have faith in Barrie even though it has a depleting effect on his wallet. As Sylvia Davies's strict mother, Julie Christie is superb as a stubborn, partial inspiration for Captain Hook who eventually softens a bit and finds that she does believe in fairies.

By the time Barrie and Peter sit on the park bench at film's end and share a very frank conversation about death, Finding Neverland has established itself as one of the more intelligent and honest depictions of adult-child relationships in recent years. The boy, who must deal with the sort of pain most adults don't have to face until well into their lives, speaks like a young man, and the adult treats him as such. It's one of those rare film moments that feels as if it couldn't have been written or acted any better. The same can be said for much of this majestic film.

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