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Finding Neverland

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Finding Neverland is a 2004 semi-biographical film about playwright J. M. Barrie and his invention of Peter Pan, directed by Marc Forster. The screenplay by David Magee is based on the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee. The basic story of the film is true, but it takes substantial liberties with the historical facts in order to simplify and sentimentalize it.


Plot synopsis

The story focuses on J. M. Barrie, his platonic relationship with Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, and his close friendship with her sons, who inspire the classic play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up.

Following the dismal reception of his latest play, Little Mary, Barrie meets the widowed Sylvia and her four young sons in Kensington Gardens, and a strong friendship develops between them. He proves to be a great playmate and surrogate father figure for the boys, and their imaginative antics give him ideas which he incorporates into a play about boys who do not want to grow up, especially one named after troubled young Peter Llewelyn Davies. His wife Mary, who eventually divorces him, and Sylvia's mother Emma du Maurier, object to the amount of time Barrie spends with the Llewelyn Davies family. Emma also seeks to control her daughter and grandsons, especially as Sylvia becomes increasingly weak from an unidentified illness.

Producer Charles Frohman skeptically agrees to mount Peter Pan despite his belief it holds no appeal for upper-class theatre-goers. Barrie peppers the opening night audience with children from a nearby orphanage, and the adults present react to their infectious delight with an appreciation of their own. The play proves to be a huge success.

Because Sylvia is too ill to attend the production, Barrie arranges to have an abridged production of it performed in her home. She dies shortly afterward, and Barrie finds that her will is to have him and her mother to look after the boys; an arrangement agreeable to both.

Production notes

Finding Neverland originally was scheduled to be released in the fall of 2003. Columbia Pictures, which owned the film rights to Barrie's play and was adapting it for theatrical release the same year, refused to allow Miramax to use scenes from the play in Finding Neverland if it were released at the same time. Miramax agreed to delay the release in exchange for the rights to reproduce scenes from the stage production within the film.

Although the opening credits state the film was inspired by true events, it takes pretty substantial liberties with the historical facts and the timing of events, to the point that both the setup and the development of the story do not reflect the true history of Barrie or the Davies family. Most of the changes reflect changes made in the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan. They include:

  • Arthur Llewelyn Davies was still alive and well when Barrie befriended Sylvia and their sons, the youngest of whom (Nico) was omitted from the film altogether. The removal of Sylvia's husband conveniently sidestepped the whole subject of Barrie's interference in the Davies marriage, and made Sylvia a more sympathetic character by eliminating any implication of unfaithfulness.
  • Michael had not been born and Peter was still an infant when Barrie met the family.
  • Peter was not a particularly troubled or serious child, at least not at the time when Barrie was writing the play. The deaths of his parents upset him later, as did his public association with the character of Peter Pan, but that was – by definition – all after the play was written.
  • The Davies household had a nanny, Mary Hodgson; much of the role of Sylvia's mother in the film – e.g. disapproving of Barrie – was based on Mary's role in actual events, and the characterization of Emma du Maurier was unlikely given her background as the wife of writer and cartoonist George du Maurier.
  • Barrie was a consistently successful novelist and playwright prior to Peter Pan. He'd had a few duds early in his career, but leading up to Peter Pan were two of his most successful plays (Quality Street with 459 performances, and The Admirable Crichton with 828). Little Mary, the play depicted "bombing" in the opening scene, was well-reviewed and popular, despite a surprise ending which became widely spoiled. Frohman was enthusiastic about producing Peter Pan, although Barrie himself was uncertain of its commercial potential.
  • The play's opening performance in 1904 was not "seeded" with children in the audience. The only precaution planned in case of a cool reception was that the musicians were to clap to revive Tinker Bell, if the audience didn't respond; this proved unnecessary, with the audience's reaction stunning Nina Boucicault, who played Peter.
  • Sylvia was still healthy at the time of the play's 1904 premiere and did not die until nearly six years later. Her husband also survived to see the play's debut.
  • There was an improvised home production of the play, but it was presented for five-year-old Michael, who was suffering from a stubborn childhood illness during the play's first annual revival in 1905.
  • The Barries' marriage ended in divorce shortly before Sylvia's death, but it was years later than depicted in the film.

Richmond Theatre in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames doubled as the Duke of York's Theatre, the venue in which Peter Pan was first presented. Exterior scenes were filmed in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. According to commentary on the DVD release, the structure used as Barrie's summer cottage was located near Kent. Interiors were filmed in the Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire and the Shepperton Studios in Surrey.

The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival. It was shown at the Telluride Film Festival, the Haifa Film Festival, the Athens Panorama European Film Festival, the Mill Valley Film Festival, the Chicago International Film Festival, and the Leeds International Film Festival before opening in the UK on October 29, 2004.

The film was budgeted at $25 million. It grossed $51,676,606 in the US and $67 million in foreign markets for a total worldwide box office of $118,676,606.

Principal cast

In addition to Johnny Depp as Barrie and Kate Winslet as Sylvia Davies, the film stars Dustin Hoffman as producer Charles Frohman, Julie Christie as Sylvia's mother Emma du Maurier, and Radha Mitchell (who had starred in Forster's Everything Put Together) as Barrie's wife Mary. Hoffman had appeared a dozen years earlier in title role of the Peter Pan sequel Hook. The original screenplay for this film included a scene in which his character – the play's skeptical producer – was to put on the Captain Hook costume and read some of his lines to point out how silly he found it. Hoffman objected to this, so the scene was rewritten for him to simply read aloud and ridicule character names from the play.

The Llewelyn Davies boys are portrayed by Freddie Highmore (Peter), Nick Roud (George), Joe Prospero (Jack), and Luke Spill (Michael). Highmore's performance in this movie led Johnny Depp to suggest him to Tim Burton for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in which Highmore played Charlie Bucket and Depp played Willy Wonka. Ian Hart appears as Barrie's friend Arthur Conan Doyle. Oliver Fox plays Mary's lover Gilbert Cannan.

Within the movie are scenes of a production of the play, featuring Kelly Macdonald as "Peter Pan", Angus Barnett as "Nana", Toby Jones as "Smee", Kate Maberly as "Wendy Darling", Matt Green as "John Darling", Catrin Rhys as "Michael Darling", and Tim Potter as "Captain Hook"/"George Darling", and Jane Booker as "Mary Darling". Mackenzie Crook plays Mr. Jaspers, the theatre usher. Eileen Essell, 82 years old at the time, makes one of her first feature film appearances, as Mrs. Snow, an elderly friend and fan of Barrie's. Like Highmore, she also followed Depp to a role in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Jimmy GardnerJimmy Gardner plays her husband.

Critical reception

In her review in The Times, Wendy Ide called the film "charming but rather idiosyncratic" and added, "A mixture of domestic drama, tragedy and exuberant fantasy, the film blends moist-eyed nostalgia with the cruel disappointments of a marriage break-up; a childlike playfulness and unpredictability with a portrait of a treacherously unforgiving and rigid Edwardian society. It could appeal to everyone from preteens to pensioners, or it could appeal to no one at all. Ultimately this unconventionality is probably one of the film’s main strengths. And if the tone veers a little haphazardly between fantasy and cold, hard reality, well, perhaps that is the most effective way of taking us into the mind of the film's mercurial protagonist."

Manohla Dargis of the New York Times said it "is the kind of film where even the smallest crack has been sealed. Instead of real quirks, strange habits, moments of everyday gas, gurgle and grunting, movies like this give us sumptuous production design, meticulous costumes and stories meant to leave us dewy-eyed and thoughtful, if never actually disturbed… The problem isn't the liberties the filmmakers take with reality, but that this isn't an engaging bowdlerization… Johnny Depp neither soars nor crashes, but moseys forward with vague purpose and actorly restraint… [he] and Ms. Winslet are pleasant to watch, as are the actors who play the Davies boys, but they haven't been pushed to their limits."

In the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle observed the film "ends so beautifully, so poignantly and so aptly that there's a big temptation to forget that most of what precedes the ending is tiresome drivel, that Johnny Depp's performance… is precious and uninsightful, and that almost all of the movie's magic derives directly from scenes lifted from Barrie's play. … Winslet's no-nonsense strength is especially appreciated… Another actress would have followed Depp into the quicksand of faux-poetic self-indulgence. But Winslet is direct, grounded and heartfelt in a recognizably human way. Dustin Hoffman, as Barrie's producer, also steers clear of Depp's rhythms, though he has trouble deciding whether the producer is British or American."

Peter Travers of Rolling Stone rated the film 3½ out of a possible four stars and called it "glorious entertainment… magical, not mush." About Depp he said, "It's too early to speculate on how [he] will grow as an actor. Based on Finding Neverland, it's not too early to call him a great one."

In the St. Petersburg Times, Steve Persall graded the film B and commented, "A first viewing of Finding Neverland was tear-inducing and completely satisfying. Seeing it again was a mistake, less of my own than Forster's, who didn't make a movie that can sustain its magic beyond first impressions. Problems with David Magee's screenplay that initially could be shrugged off—occasionally slow pacing, melodramatic plot twists—became glaring. With familiarity, the fantasy simply wasn't as fanciful. It felt like growing up, and it was disappointing. On the other hand, many of the film's qualities are too strong to falter, starting with another fascinating man-child performance by Johnny Depp as Barrie."

Carina Chocano of the Los Angeles Times described the film as "gently seductive, genuinely tender and often moving without being maudlin" and added, "Depp and Winslet share a rare combination of airiness, earthiness and sharp, wry intelligence."

Awards and nominations

77th Academy Awards

  • Win
  • Academy Award for Original Music Score (Jan A. P. Kaczmarek)
  • Nominations
  • Academy Award for Best Picture
  • Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay
  • Academy Award for Best Actor (Johnny Depp)
  • Academy Award for Best Art Direction
  • Academy Award for Best Costume Design
  • Academy Award for Best Film Editing

58th British Academy Film Awards]] Nominations

  • BAFTA Award for Best Film
  • BAFTA Award for Best Direction
  • BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Johnny Depp)
  • BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Kate Winslet)
  • BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Julie Christie)
  • BAFTA Award for Best Adapted Screenplay
  • BAFTA Award for Best Cinematography
  • BAFTA Award for Best Production Design
  • BAFTA Award for Best Costume Design
  • BAFTA Award for Best Film Music
  • BAFTA Award for Best Makeup

Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards Nominations

  • Best Actor (Johnny Depp)
  • Best Director (Marc Forster)
  • Best Picture
  • Best Actress (Kate Winslet)
  • Best Writer (David Magee)

62nd Golden Globe Awards Nominations

  • Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture - Drama
  • Golden Globe Award for Best Director - Motion Picture
  • Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay
  • Golden Globe Award for Best Actor - Motion Picture Drama (Johnny Depp)
  • Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score

London Film Critics Circle Nominations

  • Best Actor (Johnny Depp)
  • Best British Film
  • Best British Newcomer
  • Best Screenwriter

11th Screen Actors Guild Awards Nominations

  • Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture
  • Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role - Motion Picture (Freddie Highmore)

Additional Wins

  • National Board of Review Award for Best Film
  • Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association Awards Top Ten Films of 2004
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